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Job seekers are not the only ones who may say something inappropriate or botch a question during a job interview. A recent survey by CareerBuilder found that approximately 20% of hiring managers reported that they have asked an interview question only to find out later that asking the question possibly violated the law.
It is important for both interviewer and interviewee to understand what employers have (and don’t have) a legal right to ask in a job interview. Even though their intention may be harmless, hiring managers could be putting themselves at risk for legal action by asking certain questions, that some could argue are discriminatory.
A number of hiring managers responding to the poll said they didn’t know if it was legal to ask job applicants about arrest records. Attorneys familiar with the issue agreed that asking about applicants’ criminal records can be tricky for hiring managers.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued guidance in 2012 designed to help employers understand what they can and can’t ask regarding criminal records.
The EEOC guidance states that an “arrest does not establish that criminal conduct has occurred, and a job exclusion based on an arrest, in itself, is not job-related and consistent with business necessity. However, an employer may make an employment decision based on the conduct underlying an arrest if the conduct makes the individual unfit for the position in question.”
Asking job applicants about their criminal records has become something of a hot employment topic as a growing number of states and municipalities have enacted “ban-the-box” laws that prohibit employers from asking on job applications if job seekers have been convicted of a crime.
Ban-the-box laws generally allow employers to conduct background screenings and ask about convictions later in the employment process—such as during job interviews. However, the constantly changing legal landscape on what employers can and can’t ask on applications and during interviews can confuse and frustrate many hiring managers.
Generally, the best policy is to avoid questions about applicants’ age, marital status, political beliefs, disabilities, ethnicity, religion and family. Some questions that can be legal and seem relevant to the job can be problematic by the way the question is posed. For example, the question “Are you a U.S. citizen?” might seem reasonable if a hiring manager is trying to determine if an applicant is eligible to work in the U.S. However, the better and more legally prudent question is: “Are you eligible to work in the United States?” Asking about a person’s citizenship status could reveal information about ethnic and national origin that could expose employers to complaints of bias.
Employers should make sure that any background check they perform is job related and consistent with business necessity. As advised during the recent 2013 Workplace Strategies seminar, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), worker advocacy groups and plaintiff attorneys are not giving employee and applicant credit and criminal background checks intense scrutiny.
To avoid EEOC charges of disparate treatment or disparate impact based on a background check, an employer should follow four essential steps:
These steps involve the interplay of federal law including Title VII and the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) as well as state mini FCRAs.
When an Employer May Request a Background Check
According to the EEOC, employers must ensure that there is a direct connection between the type of background check performed and the individual applicant’s or employee’s job duties and that a particular type of background check is done for all applicants and employees in certain positions (not just certain applicants or employees) if there is not an individualized, specific reason for the background check.
The starting place is the job title. For example, while there would be a strong business justification to run a credit check on a CFO, there would not be a justification for a credit check for a janitor. The next step is to consider the nature of the job –whether it involves activities like data entry or just lifting boxes- and the circumstances in which the job is performed. Consider the level of supervision involved and whether there is interaction with vulnerable adults. Finally, take into account the location where the position is performed.
Requesting a background check requires the employee or applicant to sign a disclosure and authorization form that is separate from other documents, such as the employment application. Be sure to list and describe the background check information being requested and reviewed but don’t include a release from liability as that would invalidate the consent.
If the employer receives negative information about the applicant or employee, the FCRA requires that a pre-adverse- action letter be sent to the individual if there is potential for an adverse employment action. Title VII requires the employer to conduct an individualized assessment and send an action letter.
The individualized- assessment process must give the applicant or employee an opportunity to provide additional facts or context to explain why the background check’s finding should not be applied in his or her case. It is advised to ask for the response from the employee in writing as it exhibits the seriousness of your position and establishes a record. If the individual does not respond, the employer may make the employment decision without the extra information.
It is cautioned that employers generally should not use arrest information in making employment decisions, but rather consider if you would exclude the applicant if there was a conviction.
With regard to convictions, EEOC’s 2012 guidance on Title VII and background checks strongly recommends that employers use a targeted screening process that takes into consideration the nature and gravity of the offense or conduct; the time that has passed since the offense, conduct and/or completion of the sentence; and the nature of the job held or sought.
The EEOC does not provide guidance on the time period to cover when looking into criminal records. Many employers use a seven year period, but it is best to consider a longer time frame if it is deemed appropriate for your business activities.
Several states have mini-FCRAs that restrict employers from requesting certain types of background checks. Currently, 11 states (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Washington) limit an employer’s ability to run a credit background check. Similar legislation is pending in 13 other states as of 2013.
In addition, 12 states have state-specific disclosures that must be included on the disclosure and authorization form and some states require an employer to customize its form by position or type of check being run. In California, for example, employers must identify the specific state statutory basis authorizing them to request and use a credit report.
There are no state law restrictions on requesting criminal check however.