OPM has finalized rules to prohibit agencies from asking questions about criminal history or adverse credit background as a way of initially screening job applicants.

The rules state that until a hiring agency has made a conditional offer of employment, the agency may not make specific inquiries on those issues of the sort asked on Optional Form 306 or other forms used to determine suitability or conduct background investigations for federal employment. Those issues remain part of the later process of determining suitability after a conditional job offer is made, however.

“The intended effect of this rule is to encourage more individuals with the requisite knowledge, skills, and ability to apply for federal positions by making it more clear that the government provides a fair opportunity to compete for federal employment to applicants from all segments of society, including those with prior criminal histories or who have experienced financial difficulty through no fault of their own,” an explanation accompanying the rules in the Federal Register says.

OPM said that “early inquiries into an applicant’s background, including his or her criminal or credit history, could have the effect of discouraging motivated, well-qualified individuals from applying for a federal job because they have an arrest record, when the arrest did not result in a conviction or when, following a conviction, they have fully complied with the penalty and have been rehabilitated in the eyes of the law.”

Many agencies already put off such inquiries until the suitability determination process, and policies for that stage are not changing, it added.

The rules allow agencies to request from OPM an exception for circumstances in which “there are legitimate, job/position-related reasons why a hiring agency may need to determine suitability at an earlier stage in the employment process.” That could apply for many law enforcement and security-related jobs, for example, and to positions that require an applicant to “complete a rigorous training regimen and pass an examination based upon the training before his or her selection can be finalized.”