Today, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released the first updates in nearly 25 years to its guidelines on when and how employers may inquire into an applicant’s arrest and conviction history.  According to the EEOC, the new Guidance clarifies and updates the EEOC’s longstanding policy concerning the use of arrest and conviction records in employment, which will assist job seekers, employees, employers, and many other agency stakeholders.  Our preliminary analysis confirms that the Guidelines do not appear to represent a fundamental shift in the EEOC’s positions, but rather summarize pre-existing guidelines and principles based on applicable case law and available demographic research.

The EEOC’s Updated Guidance

No federal law explicitly prohibits employers from so inquiring into an applicant’s past criminal history, however, court decisions and EEOC guidelines have previously recognized that, in some cases, disqualifying an applicant because of an arrest or conviction record could violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended (Title VII), which prohibits employment discrimination based upon race, color, religion, sex and national origin.  The updated Guidance notes that the use of criminal history may violate Title VII in one of two ways.  First, Title VII may be violated when an employer treats criminal history information differently for different applicants or employees, based on their race or national origin (i.e., disparate treatment liability).  Second, a violation may occur where an employer’s facially neutral policy of excluding applicants from employment based on criminal history disproportionately impacts African American and/or Hispanic applicants and is not job related and consistent with business necessity (i.e., disparate impact liability).

The Guidance distinguishes between the use of arrest and conviction records. According to the EEOC, an employer’s reliance on an arrest record in and of itself is not job related and consistent with business necessity because the fact of an arrest does not establish that criminal conduct has occurred.  However, an employer may make an employment decision based on the conduct underlying an arrest if that conduct makes the individual unfit for the position in question.  The EEOC further recognizes that a conviction record in most cases will usually serve as sufficient evidence that an individual engaged in particular conduct, but notes that in certain circumstances there may be reasons why an employer should not rely on a conviction record alone.

The Guidance cites to nationwide statistical data showing that African American and Hispanic individuals are arrested and convicted at a rate 2 to 3 times their proportion of the general population and states that this nationwide data provides a basis for EEOC to investigate an employer’s use of criminal records.  During an investigation, the EEOC will look to whether the particular employer’s use of criminal history has a statistically significant disparate impact on any protected group. 

Once a disproportionate impact is shown, the employer may only avoid liability if it can show that the reliance on criminal history is job related and consistent with business necessity.  The revised Guidance sets out two circumstances in which the EEOC believes employers will consistently meet this defense:

  1. The employer validates the criminal conduct exclusion for the position in question under the EEOC Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures; or
  2. The employer develops a targeted screen that considers at least the nature of the crime, the time elapsed, and the nature of the job.  The employer’s policy must also provide an opportunity for an individualized assessment of those people identified by the screen to determine if the policy as applied is job related and consistent with business necessity.

As to the first defense, the Guidance recognizes that in most cases this will not be a viable option because of the lack of currently available studies that could provide a framework for formal validation.  For the second defense, the Guidance notes that while an “individualized assessment” is not required under Title VII under all circumstances, the lack of an individualized assessment is more likely to result in a violation.

Best Practices Identified by the EEOC

The Guidance provides several examples of best practices for employers who consider criminal record information when making employment decisions (beyond a recommendation for more training).  In general, the EEOC advises employers to eliminate policies or practices that “exclude people from employment based on any criminal record” and to replace them with “narrowly tailored” policies that provide for targeted, individualized screening of specific offenses based on a job’s essential requirements and actual duties.  The Commission also recommends that employers keep a record of the justifications and research that supports those policies.  Finally, the EEOC suggests that when asking questions about criminal records employers should limit their inquiries to records for which an exclusion would be job related for the position in question and consistent with business necessity.

Conclusion

Background checks remain fraught with potential pitfalls for employers.  However, employers should not let those hazards stop them from performing proper due diligence on potential employees, provided that they do so in a targeted and individualized manner that relies only on criminal history in a manner that is consistent with the EEOC Guidance.