Many job postings for entry level positions require a job applicant have a high school diploma or an equivalent GED. It sounds simple enough, but in some circumstances it may actually run afoul of the EEOC.

Last fall the EEOC published an informal letter on the topic, giving guidance on when requiring a high school diploma is permissible. A qualification standard “…such as a high school diploma requirement, that screens out an individual or a class of individuals on the basis of a disability must be job related for the position in question and consistent with business necessity. A qualification standard is job related and consistent with business necessity if it accurately measures the ability to perform the job’s essential functions (i.e. its fundamental duties). Even where a challenged qualification standard, test, or other selection criterion is job related and consistent with business necessity, if it screens out an individual on the basis of disability, an employer must also demonstrate that the standard or criterion cannot be met, and the job cannot be performed, with a reasonable accommodation.”

In plain English this means if an employer adopts a high school diploma requirement for a specific job, and the requirement “screens out” individuals who are 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. “  At this point, "…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."

Don’t panic. The EEOC letter clearly indicates employers are not prohibited from adopting a high school diploma job requirement, and no changes will be necessary in the vast majority of cases. However, employers must use caution, and carefully consider the legitimacy of the diploma requirement in light of the job duties, and respond appropriately to an applicant who indicates they were unable to achieve a high school diploma due to a learning disability.