Editor’s Note: The following article was written by Nancy Doolittle for the Cornell Chronicle. It is republished with permission.

ITHACA, NY – The Division of Human Resources is removing questions regarding criminal convictions from initial employment applications beginning June 30. Inquiries regarding criminal conviction history will be made only after candidates have been evaluated based on their qualifications. The change will impact all staff, union, librarian and temporary positions.

“This modification is consistent with Cornell’s historic commitment to inclusion and our core values to treat all individuals with dignity, respect and fairness,” said Mary Opperman, vice president and chief human resources officer.

Allan Bishop, associate vice president for human resources, explained: “Removing these questions from the beginning of the application process strengthens the focus of our managers on the skills and experiences of applicants as they move forward in the search process, providing a fair chance for all applicants to pursue employment opportunities at the university.”

“Cornell joins a growing number of states, municipalities and employers who are taking similar actions to reintegrate those who are returning citizens,” he added.

Applicants for certain positions, such as law enforcement roles where state law permits a disqualification based on a criminal records, will still be required to answer criminal conviction questions at the outset of the application process. Also, there are some positions currently in process that will not be posted prior to June 30, and those will still require all applicants to answer criminal conviction questions.

Currently, all applicants need to indicate in their job application if they have ever been convicted of a criminal offense other than minor traffic violations and, if so, to include the type and date of conviction, sentence served, probation status and other information. Revealing a criminal conviction can result in unconscious bias in the hiring process that detracts from an applicant’s qualifications and experience.

“It is estimated that at least 70 million people in the U.S. have a criminal record,” said Rob Scott, director of the Cornell Prison Education Program. “Many of them were juveniles or between 18-25 years of age when they were first charged with a crime. But now, even if it is decades later and even though some may have gone to prison for what would now be considered minor crimes, some studies have suggested that a majority of these applicants won’t even finish the application process once they get to the conviction question. They know their criminal record works against them.”

Scott said that these questions not only discourage those seeking a job, but also discourage those still in prison.

“Over the years, many people in prison receive vocational training, complete their GEDs or learn marketable skills,” he said. “Through programs such as ours, many also gain a broader perspective of the world and realize that, once out, they could become engaged in society. But when they sense that all they have worked toward will not even be considered by a potential employer, they get the message that there is no point in trying.”

This is the motivation behind the “Ban the Box” movement that has been successfully adopted by hundreds of major employers nationwide.

“Fair chance policies benefit everyone because they’re good for the families affected, the hiring organization and the local community,” said Mary Katzenstein, the Stephen and Evalyn Milman Professor of American Studies Emerita, who has been a strong advocate and long-time volunteer for the Cornell Prison Program. “Very often people with records are highly motivated to succeed in civilian life and turn out to be the best employees.”

Under the new process, questions about criminal convictions will be addressed once a contingent verbal offer of employment has been extended.

“If the finalist reports a conviction, the local human resource representative and the hiring supervisor will work with other designated administrators to determine whether the conviction is related to the job responsibilities; and if so, whether the offer will need to be rescinded or if the hiring process can proceed,” said Bishop, adding that Cornell’s process adheres to New York state laws.

Scott believes that moving the conviction questions to the later stages of the hiring process should help many who have been convicted of a crime become part of the employment cycle.

“In many cases, criminal conviction should not mean permanent exclusion from the rest of society,” he said.


Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.