Background Check Bashing -Either Too Much or Too Little Depending upon the Most Recent Headline

By Les Rosen, Employment Screening Resources

The recent headlines dealing with background checks demonstrate that to some extent, Americans are conflicted about the whole topic of background checks.

On one hand, as reported in past blogs by Employment Screening Resources (ESR), discrimination and privacy advocates feel that background checks are too intrusive and unfair. The EEOC has filed a test case alleging that a large national employer used credit report and criminal records to unfairly discriminate against members of protected groups. The state of Oregon and others are considering limitations on credit reports. Scientists from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California have succeeded in taking their complaints all the way to the United States Supreme Court that government mandated security checks revolving around background checks and entry into facilities are overly intrusive and an invasion of privacy. A recent study conducted at a major university suggested that after a relatively short period of time, criminal records are not a predictor of future misconduct.

Conversely, the recent tragic shootings at University of Alabama-Huntsville and Ohio State University have lead to many to question if background checks should be even more in-depth. Those shootings had horrific impacts on the victim’s families and the communities involved and questions have been raised if even more background checks should have been done.

In  the case of the Ohio State University workplace violence, a top notch and highly respected background screening firm performed what appeared to be a standard entry level criminal record search and found what any screening firm would likely have found, which was no record. However, critics note that a 30 year old conviction for receiving stolen property should have been unearthed, even though old records have been destroyed, and there was some confusion about the date of birth that should have been used.

Of course, to find a thirty year old prison record under those circumstances would normally require an employer to retain private investigators at the cost of many hundreds of dollars for each and every potential new hire, as opposed to public record background screenings. And ironically, even if the screening firm had located the 30 year old criminal record for a non-violent offense and was able to establish the record belonged to the shooter, any use of it would have been soundly criticized as unfair and discriminatory. It seems that employers cannot win either way.

As it turns out, in the Ohio State University case a past employment verifications may have raised the red flags that would have alerted the employer to take a closer look at the hiring decision. It underscores that employers need to use a number of overlapping tools to evaluate a potential hire, and that no one tool, such as a criminal background check, can be used to make hiring decisions. In addition, background checks are just one component of an overall workplace violence prevention strategy.

The bottom-line is that background screening occurs at the intersection of competing and compelling societal interests. On one hand, no one wants to see workplace violence, or to have unqualified people get jobs with fake credentials. Safety, security and honesty are core values. On the other hand, society is also rightly concerned with fairness and privacy and as well as efforts to combat discrimination. The issue is reaching the right balance.

It is interesting that nearly every time there is an objection because there is too much screening, there is often a call for even more screening after it is revealed that some crime or offenses occurred or where an inappropriate applicant was hired without a sufficient background check. With all due respects to the JPL scientists, one would assume their position may be different if it ever turned out that a failure to perform background checks resulted in a terrorist hurting the U.S., someone with fake credentials getting hired and obtaining access, or workplace violence occurring that could have been prevented.

For more information about background checks, visit Employment Screening Resources (ESR) at