American Idol Contestants… Employees or Competitors?

Robert Capwell


Why the EEOC Cares

EEOC american idol caseAmerican Idol debuted its 13th season a couple weeks ago. How time flies. It seems like just yesterday, an unknown Kelly Clarkson was battling to win this fledging reality competition. Who knew this little talent show would become such a pop-culture icon?

But as a new crop of singers stumble around with stars in their eyes, the company that produces the monster hit is being sued by the EEOC. The whole case hinges on whether these superstars-in-training are employees or competitors.

The legal issue is the EEOC’s new policy that makes it harder for employers to disqualify applicants because of past criminal history. Ten former contestants are suing the show, claiming producers kicked them off because they had arrest records.

The ten African-American men faced a variety of charges ranging from assault to drunk driving and even identity theft. None were ever convicted of the crimes, but they were summarily dismissed from the show, and several say they faced ridicule in the media.

It might be easy to jump in and say it was discrimination. After all, no white contestant has ever been kicked off because of an arrest. But this kind of thing only violates the EEOC directives IF these men were applying to be EMPLOYEES of the show.

So… employee or competitor??

American Idol has said over and over that these competitors are doing just that… competing. They say none of them were ever employees under Title VII.

The lawyer representing the men says everything hinges on Corey Clark. Clark was disqualified from season two of the show, with only nine contestants left. When Clark and dozens of others got that Golden Ticket to Hollywood, they signed an agreement that clearly stated they were “volunteers.”

But, once Clark made it into the top ten he was asked to sign an I-9 employee eligibility verification form and an employment deal memo that referred to him as “the employee” several times.

The attorney also says once a singer makes it into the top 12 they must join the television performer’s union, AFTRA, and they sign a contract that says they will be paid up to $1,251 for each appearance.

So, if Clark was an “employee,” or even just an applicant, American Idol would have been breaking California law by asking about previous arrests.

A judge will decide the employment question, but can Clark and the others win the battle of public opinion?

The singers’ attorney points out that 31-percent of all black, male semi-finalists on the show were disqualified for something other than their singing… but thirty-one other African Americans were allowed to compete, even though they too had criminal records. Add that to the fact that one- third of all American Idol winners have been black or bi-racial… and you have a very interesting court battle brewing.

EEOC directives don’t just affect big fish like American Idol. Being in violation can land your company in the middle of a lawsuit. How can you avoid this kind of situation? The key is having a solid screening and compliance program, and working with a company that will keep you on the right track.

If you are an employer, we urge you to consult your legal counsel to review policies and procedures regularly to avoid discrimination cases. EBI does not provide legal advice or counsel and nothing provided in this publication should be deemed as such.

Employment Background Investigations is a technology driven leader in domestic and global pre-employment background checks, drug testing, occupational healthcare and I-9 compliance. We specialize in development, implementation and management of customized employment screening programs for large and multi-national clients. We are dedicated to information security. EBI is the only background screening firm to hold an ISO27001:2005 certification for information security and to be accredited by the Background Screening Credentialing Council (BSCC) created by the National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS).

Learn the overwhelming benefits of working with an accredited background screening provider

what employers need to know about the FBI criminal databaseOther Great Employer Resources

Download our free whitepaper "What Employers Need To Know about the FBI Criminal Records Database"


Background Checks, EEOC & FCRA

Robert Capwell

Posted By: Robert Capwell

EBI’s Chief Knowledge Officer, Mr. Robert E. Capwell, is considered one of the leading experts in the background screening industry with over 22 years of experience in the field. Mr. Capwell was a contributing author of the second edition of the ASIS Pre-employment Background Screening Guidelines and has written numerous articles and whitepapers for various publications including a periodic column on background screening for The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Online. He has been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, Human Resource Executive Magazine, Entrepreneur Magazine, and several HR-related publications. Mr. Capwell speaks regularly to industry colleagues and HR Professionals both nationally and internationally.