Criminal Background Checks

On April 25, 2012, the EEOC issued a new Enforcement Guidance memorandum focusing on potential race and national origin discrimination arising out of employer use of criminal background checks in making employment decisions. The Guidance discusses disparate treatment and disparate impact analysis under Title VII and concludes that the use of criminal background information may result in a violation of Title VII under either theory of discrimination. Specifically, the Guidance notes that a disparate treatment violation may occur when an employer treats criminal history information differently based on an applicant’s or employee’s race or national origin. Or, an employer’s neutral policy (e.g., excluding applicants from employment based on certain criminal conduct) that disproportionately impacts individuals based on their race or national origin would violate Title VII if the policy is not job related and consistent with business necessity.

The Guidance addresses the differences between arrest and conviction records. With respect to arrest records, the Guidance states that the fact of an arrest does not establish that criminal conduct has occurred, and an exclusion based on an arrest, in itself, is not job related and consistent with business necessity. However, an employer may make an employment decision based on the conduct underlying an arrest if the conduct makes the individual unfit for the position in question. By contrast, a conviction record will usually serve as sufficient evidence that a person engaged in particular conduct, but according to the EEOC, under certain circumstances, there may be reasons for an employer not to rely on the conviction record alone when making an employment decision.

The Guidance spends the most time discussing the potential disparate impact arising out of criminal background checks. According to the Guidance, national data generally supports a finding that criminal record exclusions have a disparate impact based on race and national origin. As a result, the EEOC will scrutinize a criminal record exclusions. This does not mean that employers cannot demonstrate that the particular exclusion it utilizes will automatically be found to have a disparate impact based on race or national origin. Instead, the EEOC will assess relevant evidence in determining whether a disparate impact exists. For instance, the EEOC will look at applicant flow information, workforce data, criminal history background check data, demographic availability statistics and incarceration/conviction and other similar data for the relevant labor market. Therefore, the employer may demonstrate the lack of any disparate impact by showing that local statistics show that African Americans and/or Hispanics are not arrested or convicted at disproportionately higher rates in the geographic area from which it does its hiring.

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