During her undergraduate studies as a criminology student at the University of Toronto Mississauga, 2016 alumna Janelle Douthwright read one research article that paved a new and unexpected path in her education. Assigned to her by the professor instructing her Sociology of Punishment course, Douthwright recalls being “shocked” by the findings reported in the article titled “The Mark of a Criminal Record.”
Basing her study in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the author of the article, Devah Pager discovered that, after submitting constructed resumes to potential employers, white applicants with criminal records received more call-backs than black applicants with criminal records. With Pager as her inspiration, Douthwright planned to replicate this study for her master’s research project so she could understand the effects that a criminal record may have on individuals seeking employment locally in Toronto.
“Reading that article was actually a turning point to getting my master’s degree. [As an undergrad], I was interested in working and making money, but when I read this article my whole attitude towards school changed, and I recognized that research could be interesting and, in my opinion, really important in understanding, investigating, and exploring the social problems that I care about,” Douthwright shares with The Medium. “The idea really stems from Pager’s existing research. I was inspired to figure out if it was true in Toronto and it 100 per cent changed my path in school.”
To begin the data collection process, Douthwright constructed four job applications that included cover letters and equally qualified resumes under the fictional identities of Khadija Nzeogwu, Tameeka Okwabi, Beth Elliot, and Katie Foster. Purposely, Douthwright explains that she differentiated between the candidates by giving two of them “black sounding names,” and the remaining two “white sounding names.” Within each race, she gave one applicant a criminal record and reflected evidence of that record on both the cover letter and resume. Each candidate had a high school diploma and three years of work experience in the retail and hospitality sector to ensure a similarity across all four applicants.
Douthwright collected online job advertisements for entry-level work in Toronto’s hospitality and retail industry. She randomly assigned 64 jobs to the white applicants and a separate set of 64 jobs to the black applicants to prevent employers from becoming suspicious at receiving four duplicate job applications. After tracking invitations for interviews, Douthwright found a discrepancy in the number of call-backs that highlighted a shocking discrimination toward an applicant’s criminal record and their race.
“The focus of the project was criminological, but it just so happened to also have a really big racial implication,” the criminology researcher explains. “[The racial discrimination] is a secondary finding of the research.”
According to Douthwright’s results, despite the fact that all four candidates were equally qualified, the two applicants without a criminal record had a 21.1 per cent call-back rate compared to the 10.2 per cent call-back rate for the two candidates with criminal records.
The prejudice towards a criminal record is a racial prejudice. Douthwright explains that the call-back rates revealed that “whites fare better in the labor market than equally qualified blacks.” While contrasting the applicants, Douthwright discovered that the white applicant with a criminal record received a total of 12 out of 64 call-backs. Comparatively, the black applicant without a criminal record received seven and the black applicant with a criminal record received only one.
“I definitely didn’t expect that a white applicant with a criminal record would get more call-backs than a black applicant without one here in Toronto,” Douthwright says.
To combat the discrimination towards applicants with criminal records, Douthwright explains that people often advocate in favour of the “ban the box” movement. This campaign encourages employers to remove the question on job applications that ask applicants to “check the box” if they have a criminal record. However, she adds that other studies have shown the negative effects that removing this box has on black individuals without a criminal record. In theory, the box provides an opportunity for black applicants without criminal records to disassociate themselves from criminal ties.
“Studies show that black people without criminal records are less likely to receive a call-back by companies that don’t have the box on their application than companies that do. Typically, the box is seen as an exclusionary tool (used to exclude people with criminal records in the hiring process), but it also serves as an inclusionary tool for black people without criminal records,” Douthwright says.
Now, Douthwright, a recent graduate from University of Toronto St. George with a master’s degree in criminology and socio-legal studies, has published her research in her paper titled “Employer Discrimination against Applicants with Criminal Records: An Audit Study.” She hopes to attend law school or pursue a Ph.D. in the future.
For students interested in graduate research, Douthwright says, “I think a lot of people are nervous about replicating another study. I would encourage students to let go of that fear and recognize that replication research is very valuable. It’s really interesting to know that these findings could be true in Devah Pager’s study and [also] here in Toronto.”