From The Daily: Encourage clarity for the felony disclosure policy

Sunday, February 10, 2019 - 5:23pm

On Feb. 4, the University of Michigan announced a new policy requiring employees to disclose current felony charges and convictions within a week of any felonies occurring after Feb. 1. If an employee fails to report the charge or conviction, they could face potential consequences, including the loss of their job. The University's Human Resources office will review employees’ situations on a “case-by-case” basis to determine if any action needs to be taken against the employee. While the process itself appears reasonable on its face, there are unclear portions of the language and process that could lead to unfair treatment of an employee who may or may not have committed a crime. To remedy this, the University should implement an amended policy with clear language and a transparent process that ensures a fair and comprehensive process for employees.

The University has a clear duty to protect its students. However, the language of the policy is vague and prevents affected employees from being fully informed about the policy. For employees, this means that there is no clear understanding about what the consequences for reporting a felony are. Additionally, there is not a clear timeline establishing when an employee will hear from Human Resources. For example, the policy includes the ill-defined phrase “timely manner,” referring to when employees will be notified about the determination Human Resources has made. No timeline is put in place for employees, making it nearly impossible for them to plan for their future if the University chooses to take some form of action against them. If an employee is terminated, they will have no plan to fall back on. This could be detrimental to the financial well-being of the employee. The University could easily put a timeline in place to create a more comprehensive process for employees.

The policy also states that “temporary measures” could be taken, such as moving the employee to an alternate work location. This portion of the policy can provide immense difficulties for employees, especially student employees who may not have a vehicle to take them to an off-campus location. It also calls into question what will happen to students if a professor, for example, is charged or convicted of a felony. Would that class still be taught during Human Resources’ review of the professor? While it makes sense that the University would put some sort of temporary measure in place to protect students, these measures need to be more clearly defined for the sake of both employees and students.

Lastly, the policy states that the University will “conduct a review of the disclosure and make an individualized assessment, consistent with business necessity.” Here, the phrase “business necessity” is unclear. What is a business necessity? How does the University evaluate the connection between "business necessity" and the alleged crimes of the employee? Amending the language of the policy to clarify these questions will allow employees to understand the basis on which their cases will be evaluated.

In addition to the language, the process itself is unclear. The University should clarify how they will assess charges, and furthermore give the process of submitting charges and convictions some kind of interface so that employees have a more detailed point of reference. If an employee gets charged with or convicted of a felony, they are asked to fill out an online form. Once this form is submitted, the situation will be evaluated by Human Resources on a “case-by-case” basis. It is unclear if the employee is able to explain their situation to Human Resources in person. When students violate the community standards set by their housing contracts, they go through disciplinary action that usually involves several University employees. This gives students numerous opportunities to explain the situation face-to-face. Shouldn’t employees be afforded the same ability to explain their circumstances, especially in a situation when employment can be terminated? The process should include interactions between Human Resource staff and employees charged with or convicted of a felony to allow for open communication about the process and provide an opportunity for the employee to explain their situation in person.

The vagueness of the process and criteria is a point of concern. The way the process is currently structured allows for an uncomfortable level of leeway on the part of the administration to apply the policy in a way that doesn’t align with its stated intention — to keep students safe. One could imagine a situation in which a University employee would be terminated to avoid potential backlash, even if the employee is acquitted. According to Michigan Incident Crime Reporting, 37 percent of felony crimes end up being cleared. However, an employee might find themselves without a position at the University because they were charged with a crime they did not actually commit. While it is important to keep students safe, a standard of fairness must be used to protect the rights of employees.

Protecting students clearly must be a priority for the University and this policy is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, the guidelines for whether action should be taken in a given case require that the University act in good faith in every instance. An amended policy that is more specific about what kinds of cases qualify as posing a danger to students will minimize the chance of abuse and give employees much-needed peace of mind.