Target Corp. will roll out a national program early next year that will eliminate the box on employment applications that asks job seekers whether they have a criminal record.

The initiative, part of a budding "Ban the Box" movement across the country, calls for employers to wait until a prospective employee is being interviewed or has a provisional job offer before inquiring whether he or she has a criminal past. The idea is that ex-offenders will have a better chance at getting a job if they're not eliminated at the very beginning of their job search.

"It's a big deal in the sense that people with criminal records are going to be given a better chance at employment," said Dan Oberdorfer, an employment lawyer with the Minneapolis law firm Leonard Street and Deinard. "So earlier in the process employers will have a completely open mind."

This year, Minnesota became the third state in the nation to pass a law requiring private employers to eliminate the potentially incriminating checkoff box. The new law takes effect on Jan. 1. In 2009, state legislators passed a comparable mandate for public employees, and a similar provision is in effect in both Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Target became involved in the "Ban the Box" effort at the State Capitol last winter as the bill was being "developed, formulated and debated," said Jim Rowader, the company's vice president and general counsel of employee and labor relations. "We were fortunate to have some involvement and input." (The bill was passed with bipartisan support.)

With $73 billion in annual revenue, Minneapolis-based Target is the state's third-largest employer with close to 1,800 stores and 362,000 employees nationwide. A retailer with broad reach launching such an initiative isn't unheard of — behemoth Wal-Mart removed the criminal history box from its applications in 2010, said spokeswoman Dianna Gee. "The removal does not eliminate the background check or drug test, but it offers those who've been previously incarcerated a chance to get their foot in the door," she said.

Since changes to Target's application process were necessary to comply with the new Minnesota law, Rowader said it made sense to craft a uniform and consistent process nationwide, "given the number of people we interview and hire across the county."

"We're interested in a safe workplace and shopping environment, and we do want to take the appropriate steps to do that," he added.

In addition, Target has agreed to give $100,000 to the Council on Crime and Justice, a Minneapolis social justice organization, to support ex-offender programs and employer engagement and education on the issue.

"Target is helping to level the [employment] playing field a little more," said Mark Haase, the council's vice president. "Now people may be able to get a job and support their families."

Greta Bergstrom, communications director for TakeAction Minnesota, said Target's recent actions are in response to a two-year campaign the group organized involving a 200-person public action in the lobby of Target's headquarters, a hundred individuals with past records filing job applications at Target and being rejected, a visit to Target's shareholder meeting and numerous meetings, e-mails and phone calls with Target executives. "That's why they decided to make this change."

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752