The Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) recently issued guidance discussing certain disclosure and authorization requirements that employers must satisfy prior to obtaining background screening reports for prospective employees. If your company obtains background information to screen prospective employees, now is a good time to make sure you are complying with the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”).

Under the FCRA, background screening reports are either “consumer reports” or “investigative consumer reports” when they are used for employment purposes and include information bearing on a consumer’s credit worthiness, credit standing, credit capacity, character, general reputation, personal characteristics, or mode of living. Notably, the definition of “consumer report” also includes oral or other communications, and is not limited to written communications.

If your business uses background screening reports to assist with hiring decisions, remember, the FCRA requires the following steps:

  1. Prior to obtaining a background screening report about a prospective employee, employers must inform the person that they plan to get the report, and obtain the individual’s written permission allowing the employer to do so.
  2. If the background screening report discloses information that may cause the employer to not hire the prospective employee, the employer must notify the individual of the report’s findings and provide them with a copy of the report. The employer must then give the prospective employee a sufficient amount of time to review the report so they can contest any findings that might be incorrect. Although the law is silent on what constitutes “sufficient time,” the FTC has generally found that five business days satisfies this requirement.
  3. If the employer eventually chooses not to hire the prospective employee based in whole or in part on information provided in the background screening report, the employer must give notice to the prospective employee that says they were not hired due at least in part to the result of the background screening report.

One of the biggest sources of litigation with respect to background check reports recently has been over the disclosure and authorization requirements. The disclosure must be in a clear and conspicuous format that prospective employees will understand. Employers must also get the prospective employee’s written permission prior to getting a background screening report. Per the FCRA, employers may either separate the disclosure and authorization or combine the two into a single document.

The disclosure must be in a stand-alone format, meaning it cannot be in an employment application or a part of a lengthy onboarding packet. Employers can include some minor additional information in the disclosure, such as a brief description of the nature of consumer reports, but only if such information does not confuse or detract prospective employees from the substance of the disclosure.

The FTC guidance provides some examples of the types of provisions that should not be in a disclosure or authorization request:

  • Employers should not include language that purports to release them from liability for conducting, getting, or using a background screening report.
  • Employers should not include a certification by the prospective employee that all information in his or her job application is accurate.
  • Employers should remove any language that purports to require prospective employees to acknowledge that the employer’s hiring decisions are based on legitimate non-discriminatory reasons.
  • Employers should remove overly broad authorizations that allow the release of information that the FCRA does not allow to be included in a background screen report – for example, bankruptcies that are more than 10 years old.

According to the FTC guidance, a disclosure statement (including a combined disclosure and authorization) containing complex legal jargon, additional acknowledgements, or waivers of liability makes it more difficult for prospective employees to understand the main purpose of such documents. Additionally, including other acknowledgements or releases of liability is beyond the scope of what the FCRA permits in the disclosure statement, and the inclusion of such provisions may cause employers to run afoul of the statute. If employers have additional waivers, authorizations, or disclosures that they wish to give to prospective employees, they should present them in a separate document rather than in the FCRA disclosure and authorization.

Failure to comply with the FCRA is not without consequences. Indeed, employers who do not act in accordance with the FCRA are subject to civil penalties under the statute. Willful non-compliance may result in damages up to $1000, court determined punitive damages, and the recovery of costs and reasonable attorney’s fees in successful actions to enforce liability. The FCRA also contemplates negligent noncompliance. Employers who are negligently non-compliant with the FCRA can be liable for any actual damages sustained by the consumer, as well as the recovery of costs and reasonable attorney’s fees in successful actions to enforce liability.

Employers who conduct background screenings on potential employees should be mindful of the FTC’s continued enforcement efforts with respect to the FCRA.