Three Concerns When Inquiring About Applicants' Past Criminal Convictions

Lester Rosen
August 17, 2009 — 2,232 views  
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One extremely useful facet of using employment applications in hiring is the ability of the employer to directly ask an applicant if he or she has a criminal history that would show up if a thorough background check was conducted. Yet, to their detriment, many employers use language that is either too narrow, too broad, or too ambiguous to successfully accomplish this - each of these mistakes can lead to legal quagmires or bad hires continuing to slip through the cracks and potentially endanger businesses. To make this reality perfectly clear, let us go over each of these scenarios in greater detail:

Too Narrow

An example of a question that is too narrow is to only ask about felonies. Many standard employment applications only ask if an applicant was convicted of a felony. That allows the application form to be used in all states. However, misdemeanors can be very serious. Under California law, for example, most employers would want to know if an applicant had a conviction for offenses such as fighting with a police officer, illegal possession of weapons, spousal abuse or child abuse, commercial burglary, assault and many other offenses. Yet in California and other states, these can all be misdemeanors. Many serious offenses are plea-bargained down to misdemeanor offenses as well. Without the proper language, an applicant can honestly answer that he or she has not been convicted of a felony even though there may be serious misdemeanor convictions an employer needs to know about. A best practice would be to utilize an application form that asks about past criminal conduct in the broadest language allowed by law in your state.

Too Broad

On the other hand, some employers ask questions that are so broad that it improperly covers matters that are protected. An example may be, "Have you ever committed a crime?" Or "Have You Ever Been Convicted of Any Crime?" There are a number of limitations under state and federal law concerning what an employer may legally ask about or "discover" concerning an applicant's or employee's criminal record. In fact, it can be a misdemeanor in California for an employer to knowingly violate some of these rules. Furthermore, if an applicant is placed in a position where he is forced to reveal information about himself that he is legally entitled not to disclose, an employer can actually be sued in some states for "defamation by compelled self-publication." In other words, if forced to say something defamatory about himself, an applicant may be able to file a lawsuit against the employer for defamation.

Too Ambiguous

The third mistake is to ask an applicant, "Have you ever been convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanor?" or "Have you ever been convicted of a crime of violence?" or a similar question that calls for an opinion. The problem occurs when an applicant is called upon to make a judgment about his own offense. To determine if a crime can be labeled as "serious" can call for a very complex legal and factual determination on which lawyers and even judges could disagree. At times an applicant may be simply confused by court proceedings and may not understand the results or what they mean. By asking a question that is ambiguous and leaves waffle room, an applicant can argue that in his or her mind the offense was not serious and a "no" answer was truthful. That is why a question cannot contain any ambiguity.

About the Author
Lester S. Rosen is an attorney at law and President of Employment Screening Resources, a national background checking company located in California offering employment screening services such as employee background screening, job verification, and credential verification.

Lester Rosen

Employment Screening Resources