The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission approved new rules Wednesday for employers who use criminal background checks to screen potential employees, according to an article from MSNBC.

By a 4-1 vote, the Federal regulators passed the movement to make it easier for convicted criminals and others who have gotten into legal trouble to find work. The rules call for careful consideration of how and when criminal background checks can be used in pre-employment screenings and in the workplace because of their potential to be biased against certain groups, such as racial minorities. 

The changes are seen as a boon for workers who have found it difficult to land jobs or have lost employment because of their criminal histories. 

The 55-page document calls on employers to use criminal background checks only when they can show they are job-related and necessary for the business. For example, the guidelines say that employers should consider the "nature of the crime, the time elapsed and the nature of the job," also cautioning that "arrests are not proof of criminal conduct" and may not be sufficient to exclude a candidate, MSNBC reports.

The EEOC acted in part because blacks and Hispanics are far more likely to be caught up in the legal system. Current statistics show that one in 17 white men are likely to ever serve time in prison, compared to one in three African-American men, the agency said. 

Employer advocates seemed pleased that the EEOC did not completely ban the checks, MSNBC said, and one called the new rules a "collective restatement of the EEOC's longstanding guidance documents on employer use of criminal background checks."

The EEOC does not have the authority to ban “all uses of arrest or conviction records or other screening devices,” said EEOC spokeswoman Christine Nazer in the article. “The EEOC simply seeks to ensure that their use are undertaken carefully to ensure that employment opportunities are not denied inappropriately.”

To that end, she added, the new guidance from the EEOC:

  • Focuses on criminal record screening and employment discrimination based on race and national origin.
  • Discusses the differences between the treatment of arrest and conviction records.
  • Reviews the disparate treatment and disparate impact of such reviews.  

In the past, criminal background checks were so tedious that they were only used for positions where employees handled money or worked with children. Now, about 73 percent of employers use the checks on all employees, according to recent data from the Society of Human Resource Management. 

The checks have become increasingly popular partly because technology has made it easier to research candidates and partly because hiring managers want any tools possible to help them weed through the many applicants in the tight labor market.

According to employee advocates, the update has been a long time coming.

“The last guidance was written before anyone even knew what the Internet was, and a criminal background check was rarely used because it required so much personal attention to detail,” said Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, in the MSNBC article. “This update reflects the reality of a 21st century workplace, where background checks are widely performed and applicants are thoughtlessly denied en masse.”

Some companies, however, view criminal background checks as a necessary means of keeping the workplace safe, fighting against theft and protecting the company against negligent hiring suits, according to Angela Bosworth, vice president of compliance and general counsel for EmployeeScreenIQ, a third-party screening firm.