Civil Rights in the Works

The chair of the EEOC shares thoughts about the agency's work in the nation's workplaces.

By Bill Leonard Aug 1, 2012
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August CoverWith just a glance at Jacqueline Berrien's resume, it's apparent she has dedicated her career to protecting civil rights. She began as a clerk for U.S. District Court Judge U.W. Clemon, who is well-known for his stances against racial segregation in the southern United States. Since then, Berrien has advanced through organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Ford Foundation and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, also well-known for protecting civil rights. It seems logical that Berrien now serves as chair for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a position she has held since 2010.

How has the recent resignation of Commissioner Stuart Ishimaru changed the dynamics of the commission?

We are now down to four members, but it is not unprecedented or unusual for the commission to be less than a full complement. As Congress intended, the commission has a bipartisan makeup and through the years the EEOC has learned to operate in a bipartisan manner. I am proud to say that I am continuing this tradition, and I expect it to continue.

What is the main takeaway from the recent EEOC guidance on criminal background checks?

In issuing the new guidance, the commission recognized that the consideration of arrest or conviction records in hiring is not illegal per se. We do not prohibit the use of arrest or conviction records in employment decisions.

But the commission has consistently recognized that specific uses of such information can be illegal. The new guidance updates previous guidance on this subject and explains exactly how this principle should apply in current situations in today's workplace.

Some controversy surrounded the commission's adoption of the guidance. Complaints were made about the lack of opportunity for public comment. Would the EEOC consider adding a period for public comment in the future?

We have met and will continue to meet all legal requirements for any commission actions.

When the commission met in July 2011 on this specific subject, we noted that the commission was convening to examine the existing guidance and to consider the potential need to update it. During that meeting, we heard from a range of witnesses that included employers as well as employee representatives. We provide a 15-day comment period after public commission meetings, and we received 300 comments on the subject of arrest or conviction records. So, we certainly were not without a great deal of public feedback and input.

What is your vision for the future of the EEOC?

We are challenged to identify discriminatory practices that persist and recur. The next step is to move from just addressing these recurring violations to finding ways to actually end them.

We have had some interesting and important discussions in the commission about what more we can do to address issues like pregnancy discrimination and to raise awareness and ensure that a practice like human trafficking does not continue.

We are striving to ensure that the workplace is open equally to everyone who is interested and able to work and that there are no unnecessary barriers to entry or advancement for any person. Ultimately, this is what the laws of our country require.

The interviewer is a senior writer for HR Magazine.

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