By Rights... Answers to Your Human Rights Questions

Column 8

In this column:

  • Child Support, Discrimination and the Courts
  • Background Check Leads to Unemployment
  • When Not to Ask When Checking References

Child Support, Discrimination and the Courts

My nephew is a divorced father of two, with full custody, and his kids are his whole life. He works very hard but between rent, food, clothing, utilities, daycare and school expenses, it is very, very tough on him. His ex-wife has never paid one cent in child support and when he recently applied for support from her, he was told she didn't have to pay any because she is a student. She is in her late 20s and is taking only one class, yet is somehow considered a full-time student! It is obvious that she has an income as she pays a mortgage, utilities, car payment, etc. She recently purchased a pure breed dog and added a deck to her house. Whatever her income is, it is probably not legal as it is not traceable. Clearly, if it were the other way around, he would be ordered to find a job and pay support. As far as I'm concerned, this reeks of discrimination. Please tell me how we can fight this issue.

The Commissioner says:

Assuming the facts are as you describe, it does seem that the situation is unfair. However, all matters pertaining to child custody and child support are under the jurisdiction of the court, and the Department of Human Rights has no authority to review this situation. Your nephew's only option here is to appeal the decision of the court that denied child support payments.

Background Check Leads to Unemployment

I recently was hired by a large Minnesota company. At the time of being hired they informed me that I would not officially be hired until I passed a criminal background check. Right away I disclosed to them that I had been convicted of a petty misdemeanor two years prior during a college party. Since the offense was minor and would not interfere with the job, the human resources person said there would not be a problem. Well, after completing four eight-hour days of training, they decided that it was against their policy to keep me on, even though the misdemeanor was not related to the position. I requested a copy of the background check, and their policy, but they won't let me see them.

Now I am unemployed again. I feel like the company violated my rights. What do you think? Should I file a complaint?

The Commissioner says:

You don't appear to have a basis to file a charge with the Department of Human Rights. Our department enforces the state Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, disability, age, religion, color, creed, national origin, and other "protected characteristics." Unless your race, sex, or another of these characteristics was part of the reason you were terminated, your situation does not appear to fall under our jurisdiction.

It's possible that you have other rights that are not covered by the Human Rights Act, and other remedies may be available to you. But you would need to discuss those possibilities with an attorney.

When Not to Ask When Checking References

I need to know what questions I can ask when checking the references of a prospective employee. Also, what can I ask the prospective employee during the interviewing process?

The Commissioner says:

Whether checking references or interviewing a prospective employee, an employer should avoid asking any question that is related to or likely to elicit information about a "protected class." In employment, under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, those protected classes or characteristics include race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, disability, public assistance status, age, sexual orientation, and activity on behalf of a local human rights commission. So you clearly don't want to ask job applicants how old they are, or whether they are married, or planning to have a family. It would also be inappropriate to ask whether an applicant is a U.S. citizen, except in those rare cases in which citizenship is a legal requirement for employment. (You can ask, however, whether a candidate is legally eligible to work in the U.S.)

Disability can be a problematic area for some employers. Even if an applicant appears to have an obvious impairment, you should avoid asking any question related to or likely to elicit information about the applicant's health or disability. You can explain what the job requires, and ask if the candidate has the ability to do the job with or without an accommodation. When checking references, it is OK to ask a previous employer about a candidate's attendance and reliability; however, the inquirer should make it clear that no disability-related information is being requested or should be divulged.

For a more complete discussion of issues in hiring and interviewing, visit Hiring & Job Interviews, in the Employers section.

The answers in these columns are not intended as legal advice. The Department of Human Rights does not make a judgment on any case without carefully examining all the facts.

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