Osama Bin Laden and the Problems with Background Checks

problems with background checksI was up early this morning, getting kids ready for school and preparing to post a new blog article when breaking news caught my eye.   Osama Bin Laden had been killed by U.S. Special Forces.  Wow.  Not what I was expecting on a rainy Monday morning. My 9 year old raised his head from the couch and asked who Bin Laden was and I realized how long it had been since September 11, 2001. Sadly, I had lost track of time.  Been there?

My son had spent 9/11/01 tucked comfortably inside his mother’s womb, shielded from the terror gripping our country.

As I was shuttling kids to school, I was thinking about how much has changed and how much has stayed the same in the past 10 years.  Contemplating if our security is really better?  And how does this relate to problems with background checks?

Well, I know from experience on the morning of 9/11 we were a very relaxed country.  I was in Washington D.C. and preparing for a meeting at the Pentagon.  I was relaxed.  The morning was warm and sunny.

Yes, we had witnessed a horrible homegrown terrorist attack in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995 but we felt safe, secure and isolated from the turmoil in the rest of the world.  Me included.

Early on the morning of 9-11, I hailed a cab and headed to my first appointment in a federal building a few blocks from the White House.  I was scheduled to speak to a group of federal probation officers on the issues of domestic violence prevention.

So in our nation’s Capitol, what did security clearance and background checks look like that morning?  Well, they looked impressive as I walked into the federal building and was quickly met by a team of security guards, full body metal detectors and scanning equipment for my bags.  Keep in mind looks can be deceiving.   I told the first security guard I was there to speak at a conference and was immediately allowed to bypass the security clearance and head upstairs.   Nobody asked my name.  Nobody checked a list to see if I was scheduled to be there.  And even if I was, why should I be above the screening process?

Thirty minutes later an officer rushed into the conference room and yelled we were under attack and that the Pentagon had just been hit by an airplane.  Within minutes I joined millions of “shell shocked” people on the streets of DC trying to get out.  Unfortunately, I was trapped with no planes, no cars, no trains and no buses and so began my extended stay in Washington D.C.

OK, so what does Osama Bin Laden have to do with the problems with background checks?  Well, he is certainly not responsible for the problems but his reign of terror illustrates a mindset that permeates how we approach security and background screening within our organizations.

Let me illustrate.  I went back to the same federal building exactly 6 months after 9-11 to speak to another gathering of federal probation officers.  I told my co-facilitator as we climbed the steps to the federal building about the relaxed security 6 months ago and to expect nothing short of a full body search.

I could not have been more wrong or surprised when we explained to security we were there to speak at a conference and again were immediately escorted around the elaborate security protocols.   It made me uncomfortable to be in a building that security was so easily circumvented.  It made me more nervous when one of the participants confided in me on the first break that her estranged husband had kept her up all night, held against her will in her basement.  Oh, did I mention he was a DC police officer?

I quickly realized that the security system downstairs was looking for the Osama Bin Laden’s of the world, yet the greatest risk posed to me and the seminar participants was a disgruntled estranged husband walking into the classroom to continue his reign of terror from the previous night?  Do you think an armed DC police officer would have any trouble getting past the security protocols downstairs?  No way.

So what is the real takeaway here?  It is real simple:  Do not be deceived by looks.  Ted Bundy was a handsome man and also a serial killer.  Your security process and background checks may look impressive but are they applied evenly to everyone?  When you implement a comprehensive background screening program it must include policies and procedures that apply to everyone from the foot soldier to the General.  I cringe at least once a month when a client mentions that they allowed an individual, often a police officer, to bypass the background check process “because they know them.”  Nobody should be above your policies and procedures.

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