Background Checks Can’t Beget Bias

BMW, maker of luxury automobiles, is under investigation for its stingy background check policies.  Although companies are permitted to request and conduct background checks, there are some limits on what the companies can ask and what they can do with that information.  In California, for instance, a company cannot look back more than seven years, so a youthful indiscretion won’t follow you for the rest of your working life.

When BMW hired a new contractor to administer background checks for its Spartanburg, South Carolina work force, however, the new contractor instituted a policy so broad that a number of current BMW employees found themselves suddenly ineligible to work for BMW and out on the street.  The previous contractor had limited its background searches to the past seven years and actually looked at any convictions it found, to assess the nature and severity of the conviction before deciding how it would affect an application.  An employee with a minor graffiti charge, for instance, wouldn’t cause the kind of concern a violent assault or embezzlement conviction might.

After the change, BMW gave employees no such consideration, placing no limits on how many years it went back and disqualifying employees with any conviction whatsoever, regardless of what it was for.  Under federal and California law, companies are not allowed to enact policies that discriminate against minorities or other groups, even if the discrimination is a result of a policy that was not intended for that purpose.  Because of the statistically different conviction rates among different groups, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission decided to investigate whether BMW’s policy had the effect of discrimination against minorities.