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Does Target's criminal record policy result in race discrimination?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has long held that blanket hiring policies that keep out people with criminal records can easily be used as a pretext for race discrimination. If they're not carefully tailored to meet a legitimate business need, the effect of such policies is to penalize members of minority groups who are caught up in the judicial system far more often -- but for no more reason -- than whites.

While it's certainly acceptable to do a criminal background check on job applicants who would be hired into a position of financial trust, for example, it's not legitimate to ban potential employees from applying for jobs simply because they have any kind of criminal record.

When the fact that an applicant has, for example, a long-ago misdemeanor conviction for marijuana possession disqualifies him or her from a fast food service job, that hiring policy is unfair. Such policies also fall more heavily on minorities, who are arrested, convicted and incarcerated far more often than whites who commit the same offenses.

That is the background of the recent race discrimination complaints that ten Minnesotans recently filed against Target Corp. The ten people claim that Target's policy is not to hire people with any black marks on their criminal records -- even misdemeanor convictions that occurred long ago.

The St. Paul chapter of the NAACP and a group called TakeAction Minnesota announced on Wednesday that the 10 complaints had been filed with the EEOC.

"We believe Target is not hiring folks with a criminal history, and that's in violation of EEOC guidelines," said the executive director of TakeAction.

Target responded on Wednesday by saying their hiring policies have been mischaracterized. Instead of a blanket policy of excluding all prior criminal offenders regardless of their circumstances, the company said that its policy is "carefully designed to ensure that we provide a safe and secure working and shopping environment while treating all candidates fairly."

The head of TakeAction sharply disagrees. He said that at least 150 people he knows about who had small dings on their criminal histories applied for jobs at Target in the last year. Most of those had been convicted of misdemeanor drug offenses. Some of those people got job offers -- until their criminal background checks came back.

One woman's job offer was rescinded over a misdemeanor that had been expunged and shouldn't even have been visible on the background check.

"We're not saying that if you commit grand larceny, you should be a cashier," said TakeAction. "The EEOC says you should consider the length of the time since the offense occurred; you should consider the severity of that offense; you should consider the nature of the job the applicant is applying for."

Source: St. Paul Pioneer Press, "Groups Assail Target Hiring Policies," Tom Webb, Feb. 20, 2013

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