U.S. gives employers fresh advice on background checks

25-year-old recommendations to be updated
By Susan Heavey
|hrreporter.com|Last Updated: 05/03/2012

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The roughly 65 million jobseekers in the United States who are saddled with criminal records are to get more thorough consideration by potential employers under new guidelines embraced by the federal government.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), acknowledging the hyper-electronic age that has caused background checks on job applicants to soar, voted four to one in favour of updating its 25-year-old recommendations.

The agency was particularly concerned that with the proliferation of background checks by the growing, multi-billion-dollar industry that conducts them, a high error rate could ruin job prospects for many, including minorities.

The new 52-page guidance will clarify current policy and "assist jobseekers, employees, employers" and others, said EEOC Chair Jacqueline Berrien.

Revamped guidelines are intended to help firms weigh arrest records and criminal convictions when vetting potential workers so they do not violate civil rights laws.

A consumer group report earlier this month found that data from a growing number of background screening companies is riddled with errors, costing thousands of U.S. jobseekers potential work.

Findings from the National Consumer Law Center showed such companies routinely confuse people with similar names, list one offence multiple times and fail to include that a person was later cleared. The group wants other federal agencies to step in too.

Background check errors

The 1987 guidelines, just a few pages long, advised employers against blanket policies rejecting job applicants with a criminal history. The new guidelines offer companies more detail on how to weigh fairly when an offence occurred, how serious it was and how relevant it might be to the job opening.

The move comes amid an explosion of technology that makes it easier than ever to check out potential employees through a proliferation of companies offering background checks, as well as a quick search of the Internet.

Worker rights groups worry the abundance of information on people can also lead to more errors and companies are taking a hard line rather than looking at records on a case-by-case basis.

National Employment Law Project policy co-director Maurice Emsellem applauded the EEOC vote.

"It's trying to say there's an appropriate use of background checks — nobody's denying that. But there is a more fair way to conduct the process," he said. "It's time to get back to some of these standards to ensure fairness given the proliferation of background checks."

The EEOC, which has been working on the new guidelines since 2008, covers most employers and aims to ensure workers are not targeted because of their race, religion, sex or other factors.

Top companies conducting background checks include Reed Elsevier NV's LexisNexis, Sterling Infosystems and Automatic Data Processing's ADP Screening and Selection Services. There are also scores of smaller, local companies.

Some hiring managers also do their own checks, searching for applicants on Google and screening social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Some employers have gone as far as asking for applicants' Facebook passwords, a practice that Facebook has warned against. Some members of Congress are calling on the Justice Department to look at the legality of such requests.

At least 10 U.S. states have legislation pending to restrict employers from seeking access to such websites for current and future workers, the National Conference of State Legislators said.

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