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Requiring a Diploma May Be Discriminatory

by Dec 8, 2011, 5:54 am ET

Requiring a high school diploma as a condition of employment for some jobs could land you in trouble with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

An “informal discussion letter” just posted to the EEOC’s website says that under certain circumstances, requiring a diploma may run afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act. If the requirement screens out persons unable to earn a diploma because of a bonafide disability, the employer has to justify the requirement as job-related and consistent with business necessity.

Doing that for some jobs isn’t going to be easy. Employers almost as a matter of routine include at least a high school degree requirement in every job posting, including for janitors and cleaners. The U.S. Labor Department, however, says, “Most building cleaning workers, except supervisors, do not need any formal education and mainly learn their skills on the job or in informal training sessions sponsored by their employers.”

Informal discussion letters aren’t policy. That’s up to the Commission members. However, employment lawyers see the letter as signaling the possibility that the EEOC may be looking to step up its enforcement of other provisions.

Says Proskauer Rose attorney Nigel F. Telman, “I could see them potentially … saying at some point” that a high school diploma requirement “may have a disparate impact on a particular class of people.”

For instance, 87.1 percent of the U.S. population older than 24 has a high school degree. However, only 62.9 percent of Hispanics do. So requiring a degree does have a disparate impact nationally. That alone isn’t illegal. But it does mean you’ll have to justify the requirement as both job related and consistent with business necessity.

If it’s the ADA that’s involved, you’d also have to also establish that with or without an accommodation the disabled person is unable to do the job.

The EEOC letter spells out the process:

…if an employer adopts a high school diploma requirement for a job, and that requirement “screens out” an individual who is unable to graduate because of a learning disability that meets the ADA’s definition of “disability,” the employer may not apply the standard unless it can demonstrate that the diploma requirement is job related and consistent with business necessity. The employer will not be able to make this showing, for example, if the functions in question can easily be performed by someone who does not have a diploma.

Even if the diploma requirement is job related and consistent with business necessity, the employer may still have to determine whether a particular applicant whose learning disability prevents him from meeting it can perform the essential functions of the job, with or without a reasonable accommodation. It may do so, for example, by considering relevant work history and/or by allowing the applicant to demonstrate an ability to do the job’s essential functions during the application process. If the individual can perform the job’s essential functions, with or without a reasonable accommodation, despite the inability to meet the standard, the employer may not use the high school diploma requirement to exclude the applicant.

Cautions a blog post from the employment firm of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz:

As a practical matter, employers should now be prepared for the EEOC to second guess whether their educational requirements are job related and consistent with what the EEOC believes to be a business necessity.


This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

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  • Deana Satow

    Wow, this is very argumentative and that is not why I am replying. My former employer was a staffing agency with varied clients. I just wanted to remind everyone of something you may not be thinking of when a job you are thinking as basic as janitor shouldnt need HS diploma or GED. The reason some employers ask for this or require it, is due to reading and logic abilities. You are thinking its simply mopping floors, cleaning toilets, etc. You aren’t thinking of all of the different chemicals being used and the MSDS sheets involved for their own safety and those around them if not used properly or mixed could cause harm.
    In Manufacturing it is sometimes needed because they have to be able to understand & read specs and add/subtract daily sheets and again the MSDS sheets if working around chemicals. It is far from wanting to exclude anyone, many times, its for safety reasons of the candidate being hired, no one wants to ever see anyone injured.

  • Keith Halperin

    If you could guarantee functional literacy with a diploma or GED, your point might be valid, but you can’t. Those things are no guarantee that someone can read or write at a necessary level, so instead of requiring a diploma/GED/certification/etc., give ‘em a test of required knowledge/skills.


  • Charlotte Spears

    My daughter was only 2 months short of her high school diploma when she went to work at a local retail store. She was there for 9 years and was well liked and respected by her co-workers and her customers. She was let go due to lack of business at the store; they ended up letting several people go in the process. When she was putting in applications for a new job her lack of a diploma was always sited as the major reason for not hiring her. She did finally get another retail job, but it was hard for me to get over the fact that her years of experience and many references were overlooked and so much importance was placed on a piece of paper.

  • Tom Curley

    ok what if I applied for a job and they ask if I have a diploma and I said I don’t and they don’t hire me because of that but I know people that work for that company that don’t have a diploma isn’t that discriminatory?