The EEOC (the “Commission”) recently issued guidelines addressing the use of background checks in employment.  Generally speaking, a “background check” or ”consumer report” is something that is obtained from a reporting agency and reflects a consumer’s credit, character, reputation, standing, lifestyle, or the like, and is used (in this context) for the purpose of determining employment eligibility (whether for hire, promotion, eligibility to work at a particular job site, etc.).  While the Commission had been focused on this issue to some extent since 2007, the new guidelines suggest that the EEOC plans to launch an aggressive enforcement campaign aimed at preventing perceived inherent disparate impact discrimination via the most common background check scenarios.

At the heart of the Commission’s guidelines and, indeed, currently the subject of legislative debates in many states, are “Ban the Box” recommendations.  The “Box” being referenced typically appears on an employment application as a Yes/No choice, seeking disclosure of any prior convictions or pending criminal charges.  The disclosure, if any, acts as a de facto bar to employment. The EEOC has now publicly expressed the presumption that any policy that mandates an adverse employment decision for any criminal history is inherently discriminatory.

EEOC guidance mandates what should be logical — any disclosure or “hit” on a background check should be considered on an individualized basis.  Factors the EEOC recommends considering include the nature and gravity of the offense, the age of the offense, and the nature of the job at issue.  Where an employer can point to a rational relationship between the job and the offense so as to justify disqualification from employment, the Commission will not likely find discrimination occurred.  The clearest example is disqualifying an applicant with a fraud conviction from work as a bank teller — a position in which the person would handle funds with little supervision and be responsible for reporting balances and the like.  Where businesses run in to trouble is in disqualifying applicants or employees based on a “zero tolerance” policy, or because the individual is guilty of crimes the employer finds inherently offensive, though they lack a rational relationship to the job duties at issue.  One of the most common examples is an employer’s policy of refusal to hire anyone found guilty of a “sex offense,” without further clarifying the meaning of that term.  That phrase can mean many things, including potentially having consensual sexual relations with someone just a few years younger than majority age (e.g., an 18-year old boy and a 17-year old girl in California).  Absent individualized inquiry and analysis, a blanket policy could result in unjust actions, whether putatively race-based or otherwise.

The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”) further requires that detailed disclosures be given to employees before background checks are done, when any adverse action is contemplated, and again when an adverse action decision is finalized.  Separate disclosures are required if the background check will also include ”interviews” (e.g., discussions with prior employers) in additional to database research.  The FCRA is very specific about the format of each of these notices. And nearly half of the United States have requirements that are stricter and even more specific than those set forth in the federal FCRA. Some even mandate particular type fonts. As with any procedural violation, class certification is often virtually guaranteed (given the absence of individualized treatment). Violations of the FCRA requirements, for example, can multiply at the rate of $100-$1000 per violation (e.g., per applicant or employee, for the entire statutory period).  It is common that businesses seldom complete all steps of the process correctly.

So, how does all this play out in the workplace?  Fixing the paperwork might be the easy part.  Most employers don’t want to spend the time or money going through individualized analyses, which the Commission says should include discussions with the subject individual to explore circumstances surrounding the offense at issue before a final decision is made.  “Zero tolerance” policies are certainly much easier (and more expedient) from an employer perspective, and companies often bank on the fact that applicants or employees with “dirty laundry” may be less likely to raise complaints about potentially unfair policies.  However, the Commission is empowered to pursue violations on behalf of an absent class — there does not have to be a proactive complainant.  At present, the EEOC is actively engaged in hundreds of claims involving alleged violations of applicant/employee rights associated with background check procedures, and we anticipate the recent Commission guidelines to encourage the plaintiffs’ bar to focus on this area of the law in the context of class actions.  In sum, this is a good time for businesses to take a fresh look at not just their paperwork, but in how they utilize the results of any consumer investigative report.