Could a Misdemeanor Cost a Candidate a Job?

The choices we make are the building blocks that shape our lives–and our organizations.

The Consequences of a Misdemeanor

Marlena (not her real name) had always wanted to be a nurse. Her mother, a hardworking housecleaner, worked seven days a week to put her through college. The hospital in Southern California where she worked as a nursing assistant planned to hire her as soon as she received her degree as a Registered Nurse. But a single mistake would prevent her dream from coming true–at least in California.

One evening, Marlena went out partying with friends. On her way home, she hit a parked trailer on the side of the road. Suddenly not feeling well, she left her car and called a friend to take her home. Although no one else was present or injured, Marlena was soon charged with a hit-and-run because she had left the scene of the crime. Ultimately, her lawyer convinced the judge to reduce the charges to a misdemeanor, and Marlena only had to perform a few weeks of community service. But that wasn’t the worst of it.

Soon, the hospital notified Marlena that her license was being withheld by the state. After several attempts to contact the state, Marlena finally realized that she would probably never get her license to work in the state of California. She did ultimately land a job as an RN–not in California, but in another state, away from her family and friends.

An Unexpected Reason for the Labor Shortage

Could a misdemeanor cost a candidate a job? After all, it’s not a felony. But if you think Marlena’s story is the exception, think again. According to the Wall Street Journal, “roughly one in four U.S. workers is in a profession requiring a state license. And given that nearly one in three Americans has a criminal record, these restrictions could have a significant impact on labor supply.”

The National Employment Law Project, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, recently conducted a study which found that 40 states have general laws intended to restrict consideration of criminal records for fields such as health care and education. The problem is, in many states, these laws create blanket bans that disallow case-by-case consideration. The bans overlook whether the crime committed had anything to do with the job and give no consideration to whether rehabilitation has occurred.

Difficult Decisions to Reject Otherwise Good Candidates

The withholding of licenses isn’t the only issue. Many employers are also afraid to take a chance on candidates with certain types of misdemeanors. One candidate who appeared to be the perfect fit for a position had a misdemeanor for spousal abuse far back in his past. Understandably, this raised uncertainty in our client. Although the candidate’s wife regrets filing the charge in a stressful time and says they’ve been happily married since, this isolated incident on his record prevented him from getting the job.

Another candidate recently was forced to tell us about a misdemeanor traffic ticket for speeding, which he had received out of state. The speeding ticket, which in California would’ve merely resulted in a fine and traffic school, got tagged as a misdemeanor crime, and had to be explained to the potential employer.

Tough Questions About Getting a Job or Hiring for a Job

For job seekers, could a misdemeanor cost a candidate a job? These true stories show that it could. Just as an election year is certain to haunt politicians by bringing up all their past misdeeds, the hiring process with its background check and in-depth inspection of your history can uncover deeds you wish you could erase. While the past cannot be undone, you can make wise, careful choices from this point forward.

For employers, these true stories raise the question, Depending upon the type of misdemeanor, how many good candidates are you willing to reject because of a past mistake? Is the candidate’s misdemeanor behavior a pattern or the exception? And would it directly impact the functions of your specific job opening? With the accelerating competition for candidates, only you can decide what’s in the best interest of your organization.

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