It gives us great pleasure to have been asked to contribute to the 2nd edition of The HR News Magazine. We should say from the outset that we are Criminologists; hence it is a legitimate question to ask what business we have with a magazine for human resource managers. However, upon closer consideration, it becomes clear that we are not entirely out of place. As Criminologists, we are not only students of the process of rule-breaking behaviours; we are also interested in understanding why people stop breaking rules, a process is known as desistance.
Consequently, there has been scholarly and policy interests in the attitudes of employers towards offenders and the effect of criminal records on employment prospects.
We were struck by the fact that the research evidence had come almost exclusively from studies in the US and Europe. There had been no equivalent research on human resource managers in Ghana. Hence, until now we knew nothing about how they perceived (ex-) offenders and how much weight they assigned to a criminal record when making recruitment decisions. We were, therefore, interested in plucking this knowledge gap.
It was this interest that led us to the Institute of Human Resource Management Practitioners, as we sought access to practitioners for our study. We were delighted when Dr Ebenezer Agbettor and Mr Yen Sapark agreed to support our research project by granting access to CIHMR members. Our aim in this short entry is to share the findings from the research and to reflect on the policy implications.
Brief Research Scope and Findings
The study involved HR Managers reading one of four scenarios in which hypothetical individuals of the same educational qualifications and job experiences are presented. The only pieces of information we varied were the criminal records (yes vs. no) and sex (male vs. female) of the hypothetical individual job applicants. Consequently, the scenarios were:
- a female applicant with a criminal record,
- a female applicant without a criminal
- a male applicant with a criminal record,
- a male applicant without a criminal record
This approach allowed us to measure the extent to which a criminal record posed an obstacle to employment among individuals who are equally qualified for a job.
Each scenario was followed by the same set of questions. The questions included whether HR Managers would likely invite the applicant for a job interview. We also asked questions about attitudes towards offenders, and what the HR Managers believed their colleagues in the industry would likely decide. The survey was administered online, and each research participant was randomly assigned to read only one scenario.
Out of 249 HR Managers who engaged with the survey, 221 completed it. They included 54.5% females and 45.5% males. Work experience varied: 37.3% had up to 5 years of experience, 30% had between 6 and 10 years of experience, and 32.7% had been HR Managers for at least 10 years. Approximately, 42% worked with companies with stated policies on hiring people with a criminal record, and 13% were unsure about company policy.
Several important findings emerged:
First, among male job applicants, we found no evidence that a criminal record was a barrier to employment opportunities. About 87% of HR Managers would invite a male applicant without a criminal record for a job interview as opposed to 78% who would interview the male applicant with a criminal record; however, the apparent difference was not statistically significant.
That was not the case for female job applicants: among females, having a criminal record presented a major barrier to employment. Without a criminal record, 92.9% of the HR managers would interview the female applicant in our scenario; with a criminal record, the chance of an interview drops to 73%. Further analysis showed the HR Managers who would invite applicants for an interview were those who believed their colleagues would also likely do so.
Our second set of findings concerned general attitudes towards ex-offenders. Most HR Managers (67.8%) believed ex-offenders were not better or worse than other people; only 13.1% believed ex-offenders were somehow different from other people, while 19% were unsure. A question that often arises concerns whether offenders are inherently bad people, suggesting the scope for rehabilitation is limited. A large majority of our 221 HR Managers (81.9%) did not hold that view; 13.1% were unsure and only 5% believed offenders were inherently pathological.
Can an ex-offender ever be trusted to tell the truth? This is a question about integrity and credibility, key attributes HR Managers would like to look for in prospective employees. When asked that question, HR Managers proffered mixed responses: 40.9% did not believe ex-offenders could even be trusted to tell the truth, 30.5% disagreed and 28.6% were uncertain.
Finally, we explored whether the HR Managers believed most ex-offenders needed to be helped. While such help can take different forms, employment is one evidence-based support that assists ex-offenders to live a crime-free life. Approximately 1 in 8 HR managers (79.5%) said ex-offenders needed to be helped, 13.6% were not sure ex-offenders need help, while 6.8% strongly believed help was not what they needed.
This is the first study of its kind in Ghana, and it is based on a convenience sample of HR Managers. We are, therefore, necessarily cautious about the extent to which the findings will generalize to other HR Managers in Ghana. However, they offer some insight into the barriers to employment that ex-offenders might face in Ghana.
There is an ongoing campaign in North America and Western Europe to forbid questions about applicants’ criminal histories until the point where job offers are made. Our study comes at a time when Ghana is considering a review of the Labour Act, 2003 (Act 651).
In the US, California’s 2018 Fair Chance Act makes it illegal for employers to ask about the criminal records of job applicants before a job offer is made. The aim is to offer ex-offenders an opportunity at being judged on their qualifications and experiences rather than criminal history, especially when that history might not have a direct bearing on the job in question.
Credit: By Dr Justice Tankebe (University of Cambridge, UK) and Dr Thomas Akoensi (University of Kent, UK)