There are an estimated 65 million Americans with a criminal record. If you are among them, you might face an uphill battle in your job search. Surveys show that a majority of employers—a whopping 92%, according to one survey—get criminal background checks when hiring for some or all positions. If a prospective employer finds out that you have an arrest or conviction record, you might find it difficult to compete, especially in today’s tight job market.
Job seekers with criminal records have some legal rights. Federal and state laws place some limits on how employers can use these records in making job decisions. Illinois law also has important protections for applicants with a criminal history.
Illinois is one of several states that have passed a ban-the-box law. The law, called the Job Opportunities for Qualified Applicants Act, prohibits most employers from asking about criminal history until the later stages of the application process. The law applies to employers with 15 or more employees.
Under the law, employers may not ask about or consider an applicant’s criminal history until they have:
Once the applicant is scheduled for an interview or received a conditional job offer, the employer may ask about conviction records or conduct a criminal background check. However, Illinois law prohibits all employers from asking about arrests that did not lead to conviction or records that have been sealed or expunged.
Two federal laws provide some protections for applicants with criminal records. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) addresses the issue of accuracy. Criminal background checks may include errors, such as incomplete information (for example, failing to report that the person was exonerated of a crime or that charges were dropped), misclassification of crimes, information on convictions that have been expunged, multiple listings of the same offense, and even records that belong to someone else entirely.
The FCRA imposes obligations on employers who request criminal background checks and on the firms that provide them. Employers must:
Firms that run background checks also have obligations under the FCRA. They must take reasonable steps to make sure that the information they provide is accurate and up to date. If an applicant disputes the contents of the report, the agency must conduct a reasonable investigation. If the investigation reveals that the report was incorrect, the agency must inform the applicant and any other person or company to whom it has provided the report.
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. 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 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued guidance explaining how employers can screen out applicants whose criminal records pose an unreasonable risk without engaging in discrimination. In deciding whether a particular offense should be disqualifying, employers must consider:
And, the EEOC has said that 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.