Hundreds, maybe even thousands, of positions require applicants to undergo a criminal background check. Consider schoolteachers, bus drivers, healthcare professionals, financial gurus, IT specialists, or government workers, to name a few.

But the laws surrounding criminal background checks sometimes change, are often confusing and prompt more questions than answers. For example, under federal law, employers are allowed to ask about an applicant’s criminal past. Typically, problems occur with how the information is applied when making an employment decision. Are they violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), you can’t treat applicants with similar criminal records any differently because of their race, national origin, color, sex, religion or any other protected characteristic under the law. Likewise, it’s illegal to use policies or practices that screen individuals based on criminal history information if they significantly disadvantage them, such as African Americans or Hispanics, and if the information really doesn’t help employers accurately decide if the person is likely to be a responsible, reliable or safe worker.

While criminal background information can be a good source of information, you must be careful about how this information is interpreted and applied.

Did you know:

  • Just because a job candidate was arrested doesn’t meant that the individual engaged in criminal conduct. So avoid make hiring decisions based solely on the arrest record. However, a conviction record is different and usually demonstrates that a person engaged in particular criminal conduct.
  • As a tool for screening candidates for a criminal background check, social media can land you in serious trouble. You may uncover protected information about a person’s age, disability or other protected status. Your state may even have laws that prevent you from requesting social media usernames and passwords or from asking applicants to lower privacy setting.
  • Many states are considering limiting the use of juvenile records, certain misdemeanor offenses and other information when making hiring decisions. Stay current on state regulations
  • Is there some form of ban the box in your state? If so, you will need to wait until a later point in the hiring process to ask applicants about their criminal history.

Always get the applicant’s written permission to do the background check. This written notice must be in a stand-alone format and not on the actual job application. If you decide against hiring the person because of information in the report, you must also tell the individual why he or she was rejected and offer contact information for the company that conducted the background check. Applicants also have the right to dispute the accuracy of the information and get a second, free report from the company within 60 days.

No doubt, there are plenty of rules and opportunities for mistakes. Follow a common sense approach by applying the same standards to all applicants, understanding applicable laws, and taking special precautions when basing employment decisions on background problems. Be prepared to back up your policies and decisions to avoid or fend off discrimination charges.

Considering that there are an estimated 65 million adults in this country who have some type of criminal past, you will likely conduct a background check on someone with a criminal record. When used wisely, the information can help you better assess an applicant’s qualifications and, just as important, determine if they’re a good match for your company’s culture.