Wednesday, February 13, 2008

EEOC targets use of arrest and conviction records

Last year, the EEOC launched it E-RACE Initiative. E-RACE stands for Eradicating Racism And Colorism from Employment. According to the EEOC:

The E-RACE Initiative is designed to improve EEOC's efforts to ensure workplaces are free of race and color discrimination. Specifically, the EEOC will identify issues, criteria and barriers that contribute to race and color discrimination, explore strategies to improve the administrative processing and the litigation of race and color discrimination claims, and enhance public awareness of race and color discrimination in employment.

One barrier that the EEOC identifies as contributing to race and color discrimination is employers' use of arrest and conviction records in hiring decisions. To remove or limit this barrier, the EEOC has set a 3 year goal to "develop and implement investigative and litigation strategies to address selection criteria and methods that may foster discrimination based on race and other prohibited bases, such as ... arrest and conviction records." In other words, the EEOC intends to litigate charges based on arrest or conviction records.

This EEOC initiative sets a dangerous precedent. I've always understood that using arrest records could cause a disparate impact, but that conviction records are fair game in employment decisions. E-RACE signals that use of the latter without a business necessity or job relatedness could also violate Title VII. This policy begs the question of what convictions are related to what job. Certain jobs are no-brainers. Anything with children will automatically disqualify a felon, for example. What about a warehouse worker, though? What is an employer's liability if a violent felon recidivates in the workplace? What about non-violent felons? Do you want a check kiter manning your cash register? These are difficult questions without easy answers. I'd like to give the EEOC the benefit of the doubt on this issue, but when it makes litigation a key cog in this initiative, it makes me nervous for companies that rely on criminal histories in employment decisions. For now, the safest course of action would be to tailor the use of specific convictions to related jobs. Practically, however, I doubt the feasibility of such limits, given the liability issues that swirl around the edges of such hires.

[Hat tip: Human Resource Executive Online]