The edge of stigma: An experimental audit of the effects of low-level criminal records on employment

Christopher Uggen, Mike Vuolo, Sarah Lageson, Ebony Ruhland, K. Hilary Whitham

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

220 Scopus citations


Ample experimental evidence shows that the stigma of a prison record reduces employment opportunities (Pager, 2007). Yet background checks today uncover a much broader range of impropriety, including arrests for minor crimes never resulting in formal charges. This article probes the lesser boundaries of stigma, asking whether and how employers consider low-level arrests in hiring decisions. Matched pairs of young African American and White men were sent to apply for 300 entry-level jobs, with one member of each pair reporting a disorderly conduct arrest that did not lead to conviction. We find a modest but nontrivial effect, with employer callback rates about 4 percentage points lower for the experimental group than for the matched control group. Interviews with the audited employers suggest three mechanisms to account for the lesser stigma of misdemeanor arrests relative to felony convictions: 1) greater employer discretion and authority in the former case; 2) calibration of the severity, nature, and timing of the offense; and 3) a deeply held presumption of innocence, which contrasts the uncertainty of arrest with the greater certainty represented by convictions. In addition, personal contact and workplace diversity play important roles in the hiring process.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)627-654
Number of pages28
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 1 2014

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2014 American Society of Criminology.


  • Arrest
  • Employment
  • Experimental


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