Late in 2022, a Pennsylvania councilwoman attempting to book an AirBNB stay was denied, and her account was locked because of DUI and drug possession convictions that appeared on the company's automated criminal background check. Yet the councilwoman had booked many stays before and had never had an issue. The woman took her story to the media, and by October, AirBNB had reversed course and reinstated the woman's account.
The PR problems that occurred in the wake of the media coverage did not lead to AirBNB changing any of its policies, which it created in 2016 to protect the safety of temporary renters and homeowners alike. However, it did prompt many to share their stories on social media, and the story brought back into the spotlight a similar ban received by a criminal justice reform advocate in 2018.
It has since been revealed that AirBNB's partner agency has received numerous lawsuits for improperly maintaining records, reporting inaccurate information, and other problems. Some have accused AirBNB of implementing a "blanket ban" on everyone with certain classes of criminal records, creating an unfair situation where even those who have undergone extensive rehabilitation can’t access or use the platform. The company's own inconsistency in blocking users with prior convictions is a cause for concern, too.
How can companies and organizations that need to screen individuals’ backgrounds regularly do better and avoid the PR and potential legal complications that can follow from the practices of those such as AirBNB and its partners?
Blanket Bans Can Be Discriminatory in Nature
In employment, blanket bans where an organization prohibits anyone with a conviction from working there are generally considered to be inherently discriminatory. Some unscrupulous employers still use these bans and disguise their actions as regular due diligence, though ban the box and Fair Chance laws have pushed back against such practices. Organizations must instead stand up a smart framework for decision-making and for evaluating the relevance and risk level of prior convictions.
Automation is Tempting but Often Problematic
With a high volume of background checks to conduct, some organizations may want to choose partners that claim to offer automated screening services that can automatically flag particular crimes or records. While this might seem like the most sensible approach compared to more individualized assessments, the reality is clear: automation can lead directly to the problems experienced by AirBNB. With automation, there is no room for nuance or additional information, and there is the risk of making decisions based on outdated records. It's best to keep the human element involved in the process.
Follow the Law and Verify Records
Remember, background checks are consumer reports regulated under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. With AirBNB's partner facing multiple lawsuits for violating the FCRA, it is wise for companies to review their policies and consider how they make decisions. For example, many have complained that AirBNB banned them for records that did not belong to them. Using an alias background check as part of verifying that records returned in a search actually belong to that individual is one way to do better.
Blanket bans can be tempting because they make the background check process seem simpler and faster—but in reality, they create major risks for violating the law, infringing individual rights, and bringing unwanted PR flak towards your company. A smart, individualized policy powered by a reputable reporting agency is still the best solution.
About Michael Klazema The author
Michael Klazema is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based backgroundchecks.com with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments