An estimated 65 million Americans have a criminal record. If you’re one of them, you might have a difficult time finding a job. Surveys show that a majority of employers – an incredible 92%, according to one survey – run a criminal background check when hiring for at least some positions. If you have a history of arrests or convictions, it might put you out of the running for these jobs, especially in the current economic climate.
There are some legal protections for job seekers with criminal records. Federal law and the laws of many states place some limits on how employers can use these records in making job decisions. Virginia law prohibits employers from asking about expunged records, and allows applicants not to refer to these records when completing applications and answering interview questions.
Federal Laws Regarding Criminal Records
There are two federal laws that provide limited protection to applicants with criminal records.
The federal law that prohibits job discrimination, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, protects applicants and employees from discrimination in every aspect of employment, including screening practices and hiring. Title VII protects employees and applicants from policies or practices that disproportionately screen out members of a particular race, ethnicity, or other protected class. Because arrest and incarceration rates are so much higher for African Americans and Latinos, an employer that adopts a blanket policy of excluding all applicants with a criminal record might be guilty of race discrimination.
The federal agency that enforces Title VII, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), has issued guidance for employers, explaining how they can screen out applicants who might be dangerous or pose a safety risk without engaging in discrimination. In deciding whether a particular offense should be disqualifying, employers must consider:
- the nature and gravity of the criminal offense or conduct
- how much time has passed since the offense or sentence, and
- the nature of the job (including where it is performed, how much supervision and interaction with others the employee will have, and so on).
According to the EEOC, employers should give applicants with a record an opportunity to explain the circumstances and provide mitigating information showing that the employee should not be excluded based on the offense.
The Fair Credit Reporting Act
The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) addresses the issue of accuracy in consumer reports, including background checks. Records generated by criminal background check firms may include errors, such as information on convictions that have been expunged, multiple listings of the same offense, misclassification of crimes, incomplete information (for example, failing to report that the person was exonerated of a crime or that charges were dropped), and even records that belong to another person with the same name.
The FCRA imposes responsibilities both on employers who request criminal background checks and on the firms that provide them. Employers must:
- Get the applicant’s written consent before requesting a check.
- Notify if the employer plans to screen him or her out based on the contents of the report. In this situation, the employer must also give the applicant a copy of the report.
- Give the applicant notice once the employer makes a final decision not to consider the applicant based on the report.
The firms that provide background checks must take reasonable steps to make sure that the information they provide is accurate and up to date. If you dispute what’s in the report, the agency must conduct a reasonable investigation. If the investigation reveals that the report was incorrect, the agency must inform you and any other person or company to whom it has provided the report.
Virginia Law on Employer Use of Criminal Records
States take a variety of approaches in limiting employer use of criminal records in hiring and other employment decisions. Some states have passed laws restricting how employers may use an applicant’s criminal record in making job decisions. Some states require employers to consider whether the offense bears a reasonable relationship to the job. And, some states prohibit employers from asking about arrest records.
Virginia law protects applicants with criminal records that have been expunged. An employer may not ask applicants to disclose expunged criminal charges, whether on an application form, in an interview, or in another forum. An applicant need not refer to any expunged charges if asked about his or her criminal record.