About a month ago, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued enforcement guidance on the use of arrest and conviction records in employment decisions. The EEOC has long warned employers that blanket policies of excluding anyone with an arrest or conviction could lead to discrimination claims, given the much higher arrest and conviction rates of African American and Latino men. This guidance clarifies the rules for employers, giving examples of the kinds of policies and decisions that might violate Title VII and providing a framework for employers who take criminal records into account in hiring, retention, or promotions.

The guidance points out that consideration of criminal records could lead to disparate treatment or disparate impact claims. In a disparate treatment case, the employee would have to show that the employer treated people in different protected classes (for example, those of different races) differently in considering criminal records. If an employer ran a criminal background check only on non-White applicants, excused minor offenses by White applicants while excluding Latino applicants for the same types of records, or assumed that an African American with a youthful drug offense posed a safety risk while a White applicant with a similar offense did not, that employer is treating applicants differently based on their race or national origin.

The trickier situation involves disparate impact claims, in which the employer’s apparently neutral policy has a disproportionately negative effect on people in a particular protected class. Because arrest and conviction rates vary so much by race and national origin, a blanket policy of excluding all applicants with a criminal record could easily result in a disparate impact against African American and Latino men. This is the reasoning behind the ongoing “ban the box” campaign, to get rid of the check box on employment applications asking whether applicants have ever been arrested or convicted of a crime. A company that routinely disqualifies any applicant with a criminal record from further consideration for any job could well be courting a discrimination claim.

Of course, this doesn’t mean employers don’t have good reason to screen out applicants with a record of particular offenses for particular jobs. No one wants a convicted sex offender working in a classroom or someone who just finished serving a felony sentence for identity theft handling confidential customer information. The EEOC provides a three factor test, which employers can use to ensure that any criminal record exclusion accurately distinguishes between those who pose an unacceptable risk and those who do not. The employer must assess:

  • the nature and gravity of the criminal offense or conduct
  • how much time hass passed since the offense or sentence, and
  • the nature of the job (including where it is performed, how much supervision and interaction with others the employee will have, and so on).

Even if this test indicates that the applicant may pose a risk, the employer should allow the applicant an opportunity to provide mitigating information demonstrating that he or she shouldn’t be excluded based on the offense. For example, the applicant might show that the criminal record is simply inaccurate. Or, the applicant might provide facts about what really happened, previous work history, rehabilitation efforts, and so on, in an effort to demonstrate that the record shouldn’t disqualify the applicant from the position.