With Governor Chris Christie signing the Opportunity to Compete Act eleven days ago, New Jersey becomes the 13th state to “ban the box” to some degree, i.e., to prohibit asking questions about criminal convictions, usually during initial job interviews and on initial job applications. This New Jersey law becomes effective as of March 1, 2015, and will impact employers with 15 or more employees.

Although exceptions vary by state, the New Jersey law has exemptions for employment in law enforcement, corrections, the judiciary, homeland security, emergency management, or other employment positions where criminal background checks are required by law, rule, or regulation. An employer who violates this law will be subject to a maximum civil penalty of $1,000 for a first violation, $5,000 for a second violation, and $10,000 for every subsequent violation thereafter.

New Jersey is now the sixth state to ban private employers from asking questions regarding criminal history on job applications. Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Rhode Island are the other five states that ban private employers from asking similar questions. There are also currently eight states that prevent criminal history questions from being asked on public or state job applications (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Nebraska, and New Mexico).

In addition to these 13 states, there are more than 60 cities that “ban the box.” San Francisco just enacted legislation to “ban the box” that became effective only days ago on August 13, 2014. In Washington DC, the District of Columbia Council unanimously approved a similar law (Fair Criminal Records Screening Act). This Act is pending signature by their mayor (who is expected to sign it), but then must also be approved by Congress.

For businesses that operate in states or cities with “ban the box” restrictions, it is important for these employers to understand the specifics of their particular local law. Further for national employers, they may want to implement nationwide policies and procedures, in order to be in compliance with the most restrictive laws. These companies should consider moving any question regarding criminal history from initial job applications, and asking those questions later during the hiring process.

It should be noted that these “ban the box” laws (in those jurisdictions that have this type of legislation) do not prevent an employer from performing a background check on an employee applicant, i.e., it is still legal to conduct an employee background check. These laws simply require that the employer not ask any question regarding criminal history on the initial job application, and instead delay those questions to later during the hiring process.

Posted by: Rudy Troisi. President, Reliable Background Screening.