US tries the 'fair go' treatment for federal employment

By Harley Dennett

February 20, 2017

How do you eliminate unconscious bias for government job applicants with a criminal history or adverse credit background? ‘Ban the box’ said the United States’ Office of Personnel Management, some three years after an order from then-president Barack Obama to prevent undue denials of federal employment opportunities.

The term comes from an international campaign by civil rights groups to help people released from prison rebuild their lives.

‘Ban the box’ will become mandatory for all US agencies by March 31, 2017, according to new guidance from the OPM.

The aim, says the OPM, is “to encourage more individuals with the requisite knowledge, skills, and ability to apply for federal positions by making it more clear that the government provides a fair opportunity to compete for federal employment to applicants from all segments of society, including those with prior criminal histories or who have experienced financial difficulty through no fault of their own.”

Despite the long delay, this is one policy that has survived into the Trump administration. After all, even their new boss has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection no less than six times.

In practice, ‘ban the box’ doesn’t mean criminal history or financial background is not investigated. Instead it limits when during the hiring process those questions can be asked and answered.

“This rule generally prohibits a hiring agency from making specific inquiries into an applicant’s criminal and/or adverse credit background of the sort asked on Optional Form (OF) 306, “Declaration for Federal Employment,” or other forms used to conduct background investigations for Federal employment, until the hiring agency has made a conditional offer of employment to the applicant.

“… OPM may permit exceptions to this rule in cases where there may be legitimate, job/position-related reasons why a hiring agency may need to determine earlier in the hiring process if applicants with criminal or financial issues meet the qualification requirements or are suitable for the particular types of positions they are seeking to fill.”

OPM has given a few examples when exemptions might be valid:

  • 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 of the position effectively.  In these cases, the agency will need to demonstrate the validity of its conclusion that the presence of certain background information would be disqualifying.
  • Where the expense of completing the examination makes it appropriate to adjudicate suitability at the outset of the process. For example, a position that requires that an applicant complete a rigorous training regimen and pass an examination based upon the training before he or she may be selected.
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