The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued joint informal guidance concerning the legal pitfalls employers may face when consulting background checks into a worker’s criminal record, financial history, medical history or use of social media.  The FTC enforces the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the law that protects the privacy and accuracy of the information in credit reports. The EEOC enforces laws against employment discrimination.

The two short guides, Background Checks: What Employers Need to Know and Background Checks: What Job Applicants and Employees Should Know, explain the rights and responsibilities of both employers and employees.

The agency press releases state that the FTC and the EEOC want employers to know that they need written permission from job applicants before getting background reports about them from a company in the business of compiling background information. Employers also should know that it’s illegal to discriminate based on a person’s race, national origin, sex, religion, disability, or age (40 or older) when requesting or using background information for employment.

Additionally, the agencies want job applicants to know that it’s not illegal for potential employers to ask someone about their background as long as the employer does not unlawfully discriminate. Job applicants also should know that if they’ve been turned down for a job or denied a promotion based on information in a background report, they have a right to review the report for accuracy.

According to EEOC Legal Counsel Peggy Mastroianni, “The No. 1 goal here is to ensure that people on both sides of the desk understand their rights and responsibilities.”