Employers frequently require a high school diploma as a condition of employment. Employers not only look to hire individuals who possess basic skills in reading, writing and math, but also believe that having a high school diploma demonstrates a level of maturity and perseverance.

That requirement seems reasonable — except when it "screens out" individuals based on their protected status. For instance, the EEOC has long taken the position, upheld by the courts, that high school diploma requirements have an adverse impact on minorities and therefore can be used only when a high school diploma can be shown to be job related and consistent with business necessity.

On November 17, 2011, the EEOC posted an informal discussion letter on its website indicating that high school diploma requirements likewise may have a disparate impact on individuals with disabilities. According to the EEOC, some individuals with learning disabilities have difficulty passing end-of-course assessments and cannot obtain a high school diploma; therefore, they cannot obtain jobs which require the applicant have a high school diploma.

The EEOC considered the possible impact of high school diploma requirements under the ADA and provided the following advice to employers:

[I]f an employer adopts a high school diploma requirement for a job, and that requirement “screens out” an individual who is unable to graduate because of a learning disability that meets the ADA’s definition of “disability,” the employer may not apply the standard unless it can demonstrate that the diploma requirement is job related and consistent with business necessity. The employer will not be able to make this showing, for example, if the functions in question can easily be performed by someone who does not have a diploma.

Even if the diploma requirement is job related and consistent with business necessity, the employer may still have to determine whether a particular applicant whose learning disability prevents him from meeting it can perform the essential functions of the job, with or without a reasonable accommodation.

It may do so, for example, by considering relevant work history and/or by allowing the applicant to demonstrate an ability to do the job’s essential functions during the application process. If the individual can perform the job’s essential functions, with or without a reasonable accommodation, despite the inability to meet the standard, the employer may not use the high school diploma requirement to exclude the applicant.

The EEOC informal discussion letters are not binding as law and certainly are not binding on courts. There is room for good faith argument about whether the EEOC has properly applied the disparate impact theory of discrimination to this issue. Nevertheless, the discussion letter does indicate how the EEOC will likely rule in a charge on these facts. Therefore, employers are wise to evaluate whether a high school diploma really is necessary to perform the essential functions of any job for which it is being required. Even in those situations where the high school diploma requirement can be justified, employers will still need to consider in any case where a person is being excluded for not having a diploma and information is brought to light that a disability may be the reason whether a reasonable accommodation can be provided that would permit otherwise qualified individuals with disabilities to perform those essential functions.

Of course employers should continue to be cautious about the use of high school diploma and similar educational screening tools in light of the possibility of race discrimination claims.