Background Checks and Diversity

By Michael Klazema on 10/13/2020

Background checks—from criminal history checks to resume verification checks to driving record checks—play vital roles in helping employers determine which candidates are qualified, honest, trustworthy, safe, and likely to be successful in a position. The right background check protocol is a crucial piece of due diligence for employers—a step that can help them to avoid bad hires and the consequences that they bring. However, an overzealous background check approach or review process can have negative effects. One consequence that many employers are reckoning with is how background checks can become a significant barrier to Black job seekers and other people of color.

On October 2, the Associated Press published a report focused on the impact of background checks on Black candidates seeking jobs in law enforcement. “Black applicants to law enforcement agencies are often filtered out early through racially biased civil service exams, accusations spelled out in multiple lawsuits over the years,” the article notes, indicating lawsuits from the past decade in Pittsburgh and Baltimore County over discrimination in the hiring of police officers.

The article also states that “applicants are rejected thanks to criminal background checks that turn up drug and traffic offenses attributable to discriminatory policing, and poor financial histories that can stem from racial profiling, records and interviews show.”

Based on numbers from the U.S. Department of Justice, 11 percent of officers in local police are Black. This number isn’t far from the national population (around 12 percent of Americans are Black, based on Census data). However, the article notes that Black individuals tend to be even less represented in smaller communities. Since Black Americans occupy higher rates of the population in bigger cities, they tend to be underrepresented on most police forces. One example cited in the AP article is the city of Toledo, Ohio, where only 13 percent of the police force is Black compared to 27 percent of the city population.

AP argues that discrimination in the hiring of police officers leads to less diversity on police forces, which perpetuates problems with discrimination at the law enforcement level during both hiring and policing. This issue is gaining more attention and scrutiny in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.

Discriminatory practices in hiring are not isolated to law enforcement. In early September, CNBC published an article detailing Target’s pledge to increase the representation of Black employees across its workforce by at least 20 percent over the next three years. Currently, Target—and many other major companies—skews heavily white with 50 percent of the total workforce and 75 percent of the leadership.

A push for greater diversity in these companies has picked up steam following Floyd’s death. Target also says that it has been working on diversifying its workforce for several years now. The company has sustained class-action lawsuits over discriminatory background check policies and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) violations that cost it more than $6.7 million.

How can employers avoid background check policies that unintentionally discriminate against people of color? Getting familiar with EEOC guidance, Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requirements, and other legislation can help support more diverse hiring efforts. A recent Harvard Business Review piece called for business leaders to do their part “to help address some of the cracks in America’s social system” by implementing fair chance hiring, which is “the premise that everyone, regardless of background, has the right to be fairly assessed for a role they are qualified for.”

Fair chance hiring typically goes in hand with ban the box policies but takes them one step further. While ban the box requires employers to remove criminal history from job applications and usually prohibits any criminal-history-related questions during job interviews, fair chance hiring also means not running background checks until later in the candidate screening process.

In most cases, employers delay checks until after the interview process, since a candidate will then have had a fair opportunity to prove their qualifications for a job without their criminal record creating preconceived notions. The HBR cited research which states that 17 percent of white Americans with a criminal record will get a second look from employers, versus just five percent of Black Americans. Fair chance hiring is a way for employers to focus more on each candidate and their qualifications rather than just their criminal record.

At, we can help you design a fairer and more equitable background check process for your business. In addition to providing a variety of criminal history checks, verification checks, civil history checks, and more, we have a Learning Center filled with useful resources to help you learn about background check laws and how background checks can lead to unintended discrimination against minority groups. Visit the Learning Center and explore our content for free today.

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