Recent research on how ex-felons find success in the military could have implications for private employers

ex-felons find success in the militaryThose employers who have doubts about hiring employees with criminal records may want to check out a new study that followed 1.3 million ex-offenders and non-offenders who enlisted in the U.S. military between 2002 and 2009.

Conducted by researchers at UMass Amherst, Harvard and George Washington University, the study found that ex-felons are promoted more rapidly and to higher ranks than other enlistees.

In fact, enlistees with felony waivers are 32 percent more likely to be promoted to the rank of sergeant. Felony waivers are given to those with felony convictions after an extensive “whole person review” to determine whether the potential recruit is suitable for employment.

Reasons ex-felons find success in the military

There are several reasons why those with felony waivers might find success in the military (and some of these could apply to the private sector as well):

  • The “whole person review” conducted by the military selects those that are most likely to succeed.
  • With a belief that, in general, their job prospects may be poor, recruits with felony waivers may be willing to work harder and be more invested in making the military their career.
  • Members of the military are subjected to intense discipline and are under surveillance night and day.
  • Felony-waiver enlistees in the study were twice as likely to have earned a GED and twice as likely to have some college education as non-ex-felon enlistees.

In contrast to the success of enlistees with felony waivers, however, the research found that slightly more ex-felons (6.6%) were discharged for committing a legal offense (breaking military law) than non-ex-felons (5%).

Significance of study

This study is important for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that “The military is the only large-scale employer that has accommodated the hiring of ex-felons in significant numbers,” says Jennifer Lundquist, professor of sociology and associate dean of research and faculty development for the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at UMass Amherst and lead author on the report.

“Moreover, it carefully measures and documents their performance over time. While generalizability to the civilian labor force remains an open question, these data allow us to assess the important question of ex-offender work performance across a wide range of occupations and with multiple dimensions of performance. We hope that future research and data collection will extend this analysis to the few civilian contexts that regularly hire ex-felons to test whether our results are replicated in nonmilitary contexts.”

Although the military is not a typical employer, other recent research, such as that done by the ACLU, found that retention rates are higher, turnover is lower, and employees with criminal records are more loyal to the private-sector employers that hire them than are those without a record.

The complete study of ex-felons in the military, “Does a Criminal Past Predict Worker Performance? Evidence from One of America’s Largest Employers,” appears in the March issue of the journal Social Forces.

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