Justice and Due Process

Employability Certificates: From Conviction to Qualification

Job hunting is tough enough, but for those with a criminal record, it can feel like a nearly impossible task.

In recent years, the movement to “ban-the-box” on job applications has gained significant momentum. The idea behind this policy is to give applicants with a criminal history a more fair shot at securing employment by removing the impersonal, little box from job applications that you must check if you have a criminal record. 

While these policies have been successful in increasing the number of job opportunities available to those with a criminal record, they have also been criticized for not going far enough

Enter employability certificates. This innovative idea could be the key to strengthening ban-the-box policies and ensuring that individuals with a criminal record have a better opportunity of landing a job.

Employability certificates, also known as “certificates of qualification for employment,” are issued by local courts and provide evidence of an individual’s rehabilitation since their conviction. Judges review the person’s actions since conviction and issue a certificate if they are deemed to have been rehabilitated. This piece of paper can then be used to convince employers to give job applicants with a criminal record a chance — particularly those with recent convictions.

But, do employability certificates actually work? Recent research by Peter Leasure and Tia Stevens Andersen at the University of South Carolina suggests that they do. In their study, the researchers sent hundreds of fake job applications to employers, randomizing so that the applicant might have a year-old felony drug conviction, no criminal history, or a year-old felony drug conviction with a court-issued employability certificate. The results were clear: those with employability certificates were called back almost as often as those with no criminal record at all.

So why are employability certificates so effective? For one, they provide a sign to employers that a trusted person of authority, a judge, with extensive knowledge of the applicant’s history and behavior, believes they are ready to be successful in the job market. 

This can address concerns that employers have when it comes to hiring individuals with a criminal record, such as the fear that said individual may be less work-ready than other applicants. Employability certificates also can reduce the risk of a negligent hiring lawsuit for employers because they show that the applicant has been deemed rehabilitated by an objective third party.

How can we further strengthen ban-the-box policies with employability certificates? For one, these certificates should be more widely available and be used in conjunction with ban-the-box policies. Employability certificates can help applicants who get to the interview stage of the hiring process and may have to disclose prior offenses to overcome their criminal past. While several jurisdictions across the country already allow individuals with criminal records to seek employability certificates from local courts, this should be the standard everywhere.