EEOC Shares Tips on Background Checks

handcuffsSome would argue the EEOC’s guidance on the use of criminal background check information offers more confusion than clarification for employers.

Critics—including a group of nine state attorney generals that penned a letter detailing its grievances to the EEOC—contend the agency’s regulations unduly burden employers with costs, could actually create more opportunities for discrimination, and may circumvent many state laws with respect to background checks for employment purposes.

The EEOC has made efforts to address such concerns. In September 2013, for example, the agency responded to the aforementioned letter, explaining its recommendation that employers use a two-step process for job applicants—including individualized assessment as the second step—rather than relying on bright-line screens alone.

Earlier this week, the EEOC—along with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission—made another attempt at shedding light on the subject, offering tips to employers and job seekers alike, in the form of two technical assistance documents.

The organizations issued the documents—one for employers, one for job applicants and employees—in an effort to “explain how the agencies’ respective laws apply to background checks performed for employment purposes,” according to an EEOC statement.

For example, the EEOC advises employers to “be prepared to make exceptions for problems revealed during a background check that revealed a disability. … If you are inclined not to hire a person because of a problem caused by a disability, you should allow the person to demonstrate his or her ability to do the job—despite the negative background information—unless doing so would cause significant financial or operational disability.”

The document also reminds organizations of their responsibilities before taking an adverse employment action, such as supplying an applicant or employee a notice that includes a copy of the consumer report the company used in reaching its decision, and a copy of “A Summary of Your Rights Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act.”

The publication geared toward employers does contain some “helpful reminders for employers who pursue background checks on applicants or employees,” says Rachel Reingold Mandel, a shareholder in the Boston office of labor and employment law firm Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart.

The information presented in the document is especially useful in light of FCRA requirements “[losing] the spotlight recently,” says Mandel, “as the EEOC and state law anti-discrimination focus has gained traction.

“This publication helpfully reminds employers that it is important to both use background checks in ways that do not discriminate based on protected characteristics—race, color, sex and national origin, for example—and to follow [FCRA’s] technical requirements.”

Organizations and HR leaders “have worked to balance their obligations under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act against their obligations under applicable anti-discrimination laws, including those enforced by the EEOC,” she says.

“This publication provides a helpful guide to the steps employers should follow to comply with both the FCRA and federal anti-discrimination laws,” continues Mandel, adding that employers would be wise to “keep in mind separate state-specific laws, including those that prohibit asking any criminal background questions on employment applications.”