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Do Felons Make Good Employees?


Let's hear now about one factor that employers looking to hire more often than not consider a deal breaker. Keith Romer from our Planet Money podcast looks at why, maybe, it should not be.

KEITH ROMER, BYLINE: Alexis is a 22-year-old from the Bronx. I'm only going to use his first name for reasons that will become clear. Alexis has been looking for a job for months.

ALEXIS: I've been applying for every type of job there is available. Anything that's unavailable I still apply for.

ROMER: One of those jobs was at Target. When they called him back, he was ecstatic.

ALEXIS: I was jumping around. Thank God that I put the phone on mute because you would have heard me scream. I was happy as hell.

ROMER: He went through two interviews with Target that he thought went great, but Alexis didn't get the job. He's pretty sure that's because of a criminal background check the company ran on him. Alexis has a felony record, and for a lot of employers that's a deal breaker.

JERRY PIONK: The perfect applicant we take is a decent student, a high school graduate, has resiliency and fitness of character, and that's the kind of folks we're trying to appeal to and get.

ROMER: That's Jerry Pionk, a spokesman for a very large employer in this country, the United States Army. Lt. Col. Pionk says the Army wouldn't hire someone like Alexis.

PIONK: At this time the Army is taking no applicants with any felonies.

ROMER: This wasn't always the rule, though. In fact during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, thousands of people with felony convictions were given waivers that allowed them to enlist. The reason was pretty simple, the Army needed soldiers.

PIONK: We needed more people in, so we allowed and granted more waivers to be signed.

ROMER: For Devah Pager, a sociologist at Harvard, the military's policy created a sort of natural experiment. How do ex-offenders actually do in the workplace? Can they be good employees?

DEVAH PAGER: We realized that the military, in fact, represents kind of an ideal setting to test some of these questions.

ROMER: Pager thinks these are questions that more and more employers might want answers to.

PAGER: You know, something like 8 percent of the working age population in this country has a felony conviction. So this is a fairly common status.

ROMER: Pager used the Freedom of Information Act to get the military records of over a million service members who joined up between 2002 and 2009. About 5,000 of those had felony records. She found two ways to use the data to test whether ex-offenders in fact made good employees. First, she looked at how many finished the term they signed up for and how many got the boot.

PAGER: On average, those with felony waivers are no more likely to get kicked out.

ROMER: They did just as well. Next, she looked at promotions. This got even more interesting.

PAGER: We actually find that those with felony-level waivers are promoted faster and to higher levels than those without waivers. And that was quite a surprise to us.

ROMER: The people with felony records, they did better. Pager acknowledges that working for the Army and working for Target are pretty different. But she thinks civilian employers could still learn from the military. The military looked at everything about the person who was trying to join up instead of just using criminal records as a litmus test.

PAGER: Employees are probably missing a lot of talent when they exclude people with criminal records.

ROMER: Alexis, the 22-year-old from before, he wants to prove her right.

ALEXIS: I'm a natural hard worker. Even if I didn't go to prison I would still work hard, harder than I'm originally supposed to. I'm just a hard worker.

ROMER: Would you ever consider joining the military?

ALEXIS: I would love to join the military.

ROMER: For now, though, that job isn't an option Alexis really has. Keith Romer, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Keith Romer has been a contributing reporter for Planet Money since 2015. He has reported stories on risk-pooling among poker players, whether it's legal to write a spin-off of the children's book Goodnight Moon and the time one man cornered the American market in onions. Sometimes on the show, he sings.