US agency forges ahead with reforms to criminal record checks

By on 20/02/2017 | Updated on 24/09/2020
The ‘ban the box’ policy was proposed by former president Barack Obama in April last year.

US federal agencies are to be prohibited from enquiring about job applicants’ criminal records in the early stages of recruitment processes, according to guidance released this month by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

The so-called ‘ban the box’ policy, which from 31 March will prohibit employers from conducting background checks until a conditional job offer has been made, was proposed by former president Barack Obama in April last year. So far, the policy has survived into the Trump administration.

Beth Cobert, OPM director, blogged last year that the federal government, one of the nation’s largest employers, was committed to pursuing public policies that promote fairness and equality. Many agencies already collect information on criminal history at a later stage of the hiring process, she added.

“Earlier inquiries into an applicant’s criminal history may discourage motivated, well-qualified individuals who have served their time from applying for a federal job,” she said.

“Early inquiries could also lead to the premature disqualification of otherwise eligible candidates, regardless of whether an arrest actually resulted in a conviction, or whether consideration of an applicant’s criminal history is justified by business necessity.”

The new rules were effective as of 3 January 2017, but agencies have until the end of March to comply or request exemptions. An exception may be granted, for example, “for certain positions where the ability to testify as a witness is a requirement of the position, and thus a clean criminal history record would be essential to the ability to perform one of the duties,” explained the OPM.

More than 600,000 people are released from federal and state prisons in the US every year, and as many as 100 million Americans carry some kind of criminal record.

The UK government has also pledged to ‘ban the box’, as part of a plan to reform the recruitment system announced in February last year. The UK civil service will still ask about criminal convictions during its recruitment process, but not in the initial application form stage.

Last year, chief people officer Rupert McNeil told Global Government Forum that the new rules aimed to avoid deterring eligible applicants, so as to maximise the number of candidates for every role. “The broader the funnel at the start, the better: this is a way of broadening the funnel,” he said.

However, the negative comments underneath McNeil’s blog about ‘ban the box’ demonstrate how contentious the issue has become. And whilst the OPM’s policy is moving into implementation, it is not yet clear whether the Trump administration will back it.

For up to date government news and international best practice follow us on Twitter @globegov

See also:

Proposed new rule gives people with criminal records ‘fair shot’ to join U.S. federal civil service

U.S. government urged to recruit ‘aggressively’ in face of retirement boom

Rupert McNeil, chief people officer for the UK Civil Service: exclusive interview

Committee pushes US government on ‘conversion’ of political appointees to civil servants

War of words breaks out over plans to make it easier to fire U.S. civil servants

New executive order to give US departments greater power to scrutinise federal contractors


About Tamsin Rutter

Tamsin Rutter is a journalist based in Brussels, Belgium. She writes on a variety of topics, including public services, cities, local and central government and education. She was formerly the deputy editor of the Guardian's Public Leaders Network and Housing Network.

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