The Fort Smith civil service commission has voted to temporarily cease using credit reports in the interview process of city police and fire personnel. The five-member group requested training on the Fair Credit Report Act (FCRA) and Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws before resuming use.
Commission chairperson and Fort Smith attorney Chip Sexton said Wednesday (Nov. 1) he would “make the motion now” to cease using credit reports altogether but wasn’t sure he would have the votes for it. Sexton decried an existing lack of objective standards for how the commission uses the reports in the interview process. However, the motion that carried from commissioner Marty Shell was to continue use of the reports once the city had provided commissioners with the requested training.
Naomi Roundtree, human resource director for the city of Fort Smith, said trends in HR were “moving away” from use of credit reports and noted Fort Smith City Administrator Carl Geffken — not in attendance Wednesday — “does not want us utilizing credit reports for the city” for the most part.
“My only concern with police and fire utilizing them is having standards: what is that standard?” Roundtree said, noting that “when you’re having a conversation, you’re taking into account the credit report. Even if that’s not the sole reason that you’re choosing not to move forward, it’s part of that decision.”
Roundtree warned that not having a clear structure “of exactly what you’re reviewing that for, what that impact is, then you could have some disparate impact because you may have someone who’s a low income or fits a certain demographic or has a certain background, and those individuals may not have the credit report of other individuals in a different situation. So, from an HR perspective, that’s why you see they don’t ask about criminal history in a lot of applications, and a lot of states are outlawing using credit reports in general.”
Roundtree said she thought credit reports could be useful “as long as we have it standardized to know exactly what we’re comparing it to and what we’re using it for, and we can say why this is a character issue.”
Colby Roe, a Fort Smith attorney who advises the city through the firm Daily & Woods, added there are “a lot of complexities in these laws, and even with everybody having pure hearts, allegations can still be made.” Pure intent, he said, “won’t stop an allegation unless you have some really good, ironclad, objective standards. And even yet, I don’t think that is foolproof.”
According to National Law Review, the FCRA requires employers to certify to job applicants that consumer background reports will be used for a “permissible purpose”; provide written disclosure and receive written authorization from job applicants before obtaining consumer reports; provide notice to job applicants, including a copy of the consumer background report relied upon and notice of the applicant’s rights under the FCRA, before making any adverse employment decisions; and provide job applicants, orally, in writing, or electronically, with an adverse action notice after making any adverse employment decisions based on a consumer background report.
Some view emphasis on credit reports as a backdoor discrimination method used against at-risk demographics.
The decision to hit the pause button on their use by the civil service commission comes amid a growing push to address the city’s minority hiring disparities. The city hired Nathaniel Clark in late 2016, but in spite of being the first African-American police chief in Fort Smith history, he’s also one of only 12 black officers in Fort Smith’s 200-year history.