It is a fundamental principle that an employer has the right to hold an applicant accountable for an untruthful answer to a lawful question. In the case of Sweatt v. Union Pacific Railroad Company (7th Cir. Aug. 6, 2015), the Court found there was no bias when Sweatt made a “fatal mistake” during the interview process—“persisting in a lie about criminal history.”
Sweatt was a track worker for several years at Union Pacific. At age 54, seeking a lighter duty job, he applied for a position as a security guard. The company asked its security guard applicants to complete a “Personal History Statement.” This Statement included the question of whether the applicant had been charged with or convicted of a crime. In conjunction with that question, the company included the following statement: “A conviction may not disqualify you, but a false statement will.”
Sweatt had been arrested for domestic violence but did not disclose that in response to the question. During his initial interview, Sweatt was specifically asked the same question by the interviewer and again responded “no.” The company conducted a comprehensive background check, where it learned of Sweatt’s arrest. Three additional times Sweatt was asked if he had been arrested, and three additional times Sweatt answered “no.” Thus, with a minimum of five times for Sweatt to discuss his arrest, each time he answered untruthfully.
The employer disqualified Sweatt from consideration from the security guard position. Sweatt filed an age and race discrimination lawsuit. He alleged that nineteen other candidates were offered security guard positions and he was not, thus he alleged the company’s decision was motivated by his race and age. In rejecting that claim, the Court stated that not one of the nineteen other candidates was similarly situated to Sweatt. That is, there was no evidence that the other nineteen had lied about their criminal history and covered it up when asked repeatedly during the interview process. Three candidates with criminal records were hired, but they did not attempt to cover their criminal past and, according to the Court, were “forthright and admitted to the prior misdeeds during the interviews.”
The Court noted the job-related nature of these questions. Security guards are responsible for protecting multi-million dollar company assets. Thus, the company had every reason to be concerned about the integrity and honesty of the individuals it hired for that position. The general employment principle extends beyond criminal history records: An employer has the right to hold applicants accountable if they are untruthful in response to permissible interview questions.