Employers not as open to hiring ex-cons as they claim

When it comes to hiring ex-offenders, employers will say one thing but do another, researchers from Princeton and Northwestern universities found in a new study.

More than 60 percent of employers in the study claimed to be willing to hire an individual recently convicted of a drug crime. When actually confronted with such an applicant, however, fewer than 20 percent even offered that individual an interview, according to the study, published in the June issue of the American Sociological Review. The paper's authors — Devah Pager, an assistant professor at Princeton, and Lincoln Quillian, an associate professor at Northwestern — also found that black applicants were far less likely to receive call-backs than white applicants, despite what employers' own reports indicated.

The study, performed in Milwaukee, was conducted in two stages. First a group of male college students with fictitious resumes, some of which bore evidence of a felony drug conviction, were sent out in pairs to apply for a total of 350 similar entry-level jobs. Half the applicants were white, and half were black. Their resumes gave them comparable qualifications, which fit the advertised job descriptions.

In the second stage, which occurred several months later, the same 350 employers were asked in a telephone survey to rate their likelihood of hiring an ex-offender. Some employers were asked about their likelihood of hiring an ex-offender described as black, some described as white (no direct racial comparisons were involved).

In the telephone survey, more than 60 percent of the employers said they were somewhat or very likely to hire a drug offender irrespective of the applicant's race, the study found. When actual job applicants who appeared to be ex-offenders were involved, only 17 percent of the white applicants and 5 percent of the black applicants received call-backs for an interview or a job offer from the same employers.

In addition to pointing out discrimination in hiring practices, the study shows the weaknesses of relying on self-reporting as a way to evaluate people's actions. Pager advocates explicitly testing one's assumptions by directly observing when and how attitudes match with corresponding behavior.

"These results cast strong doubt on the accuracy of survey data for indicating relative likelihoods of hiring," said Pager, who has been a member of the Princeton sociology department since 2004. She studies institutions affecting racial stratification, including education, labor markets and the criminal justice system. Her book on discrimination against minorities and ex-offenders will be published next year by the University of Chicago Press.

Pager also is the co-author of a recent study of 1,500 private employers in New York City that found that black applicants without criminal records are no more likely to get a job than white applicants just out of prison.