CNN and WSJ News Stories Show Background Checks Occur at Intersection of Security and Privacy

By Lester Rosen, ESR President & Thomas Ahearn, ESR News Blog Writer

Recently, two news stories about background checks from very different angles appeared in two major media outlets – CNN and the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) – on the same day.

The CNN story – “Investigation: Could background check have prevented alleged rape?” – investigated why British Petroleum (BP) and a company used to hire cleanup workers for the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico did not perform basic background checks.

According to the CNN story, this lack of background checks for oil cleanup workers led to a sex offender landing a job and then allegedly raping a co-worker. A CNN investigation into the incident revealed that basic background checks were not performed on those hired to remove oil from the beaches in Mississippi.

A County Sheriff in Mississippi told CNN he learned from the head of BP security that no background checks were conducted on the cleanup workers and that he warned the BP official that BP risked the criminal element looking for jobs and they would not know who they were dealing with if they did not do background checks. The Sherriff also said that, if asked, his department would have performed the background checks for free.

The 41-year-old suspect – who faces charges of sexual battery and failure to register as a sex offender – has a criminal history dating back to 1991. He was put on the national sex offender registry for a 1996 conviction for contributing to the delinquency of a minor and was also on probation after being convicted in 2003 for cruelty to children, CNN reports.

While the CNN story shows the need for background checks for security reasons, a WSJ law blog – “Background Checks in Hiring: Discrimination or Due Diligence?” – asks if employers can disqualify job applicants simply for having a criminal past and finds the answer may not be so clear cut, at least according to a story by the Associated Press (AP).

The AP reports the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is arguing that the practice of employers disqualifying applicants with criminal records or bad credit history may be discrimination since those applicants are “disproportionately black or Latino.” The WSJ law blog also quotes the AP story to show that employers using a blanket refusal to hire applicants with criminal records could risk going against federal employment law:

If criminal histories are taken into account, the EEOC says employers must also consider the nature of the job, the seriousness of the offense and how long ago it occurred. For example, it may make sense to disqualify a bank employee with a past conviction for embezzlement, but not necessarily for a DUI.

The AP also reported that the EEOC filed a class-action discrimination lawsuit against a Dallas-based events planning firm in 2009, alleging that the firm “used credit history and criminal records to discriminate against blacks, Hispanics, and males.”

The two news stories read back to back – one in which the failure to do a background check possibly led to a preventable crime, the other questioning if background checks using credit histories and criminal records are discriminatory – could leave employers wondering how much background checking is too much and how much is too little.

These two stories – appearing on the same day from major news organizations but with vastly different angles – underscore the point that background checks occur at the intersection of security and privacy. On the one hand, background checks can promote safety, security, and honesty while lessening the chance for workplace violence or the hiring of unqualified workers with fake credentials. On the other hand, employers using background checks should be concerned with issues of fairness and privacy while combating discrimination.

The solution for employers is reaching the right balance in their background check program.

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