Post 9/11 World of Employee Background Checks

employee background checksThis morning reminded me so much of the morning of 9-11-2001.  Crisp, clear and sunny.  Innocent. I remember jumping in a cab early that morning in Washington DC as the city was waking up.  I had two appointments.  First, I was speaking to a group of federal probation officers on preventing violence against women and children.  Then after lunch I was heading across the river for a meeting with the Department of Defense Task Force on Domestic Violence.  I never made it across the river (thankfully).

I was reflecting on that day during my morning commute.  I was thanking God for protecting me that day.  I was also thinking about how 9-11 impacted employee background checks.

The young background screening industry exploded immediately after 9-11.  Our sense of safety and security had been stolen.

I can remember boarding a plane the day flights resumed for a cross-country flight and realized immediately our world had changed.  Security screening was intense.

Gone were the days when you pre-boarded a plane and focused on your work, laptop, mobile phone (no iPad yet) or book.  Every passenger was studying each person boarding the plane, looking for any sign of a potential terrorist.

We were on heightened alert.  Highly sensitive.  Focused.

Then I noticed over the years that this started to fade.  We started to fall back into our old patterns and habits.

And we have seen the same type of shift in employee background checks.  The pendulum has swung a different direction.

The EEOC has made criminal record checks a high priority with their 2012 strategic plan.  They have made it clear that they believe the proliferation of criminal background checks has had a negative impact ex-offenders.

Yet very little thought to how the victims of the ex-offenders were impacted.

Several states have enacted laws to restrict the reporting of criminal records with many other states exploring similar restrictions.  This has been dubbed “second chance” laws.

Really?  Second chance?  If so, I am all for that.  Someone makes a mistake, pays their debt, learns from their mistake and moves forward.  I would participate in that graduation ceremony.

However, my 20+ years of experience with the criminal justice system has lead me to believe the law should be more accurately described as the tenth time law.  We have tried everything to lower recidivism rates:

  • Education
  • Tougher sentencing
  • Drug courts
  • Anger management

And as we continue to see the same percentage of offenders return to prison as we did 20 years ago (before the proliferation of background checks) then the only thing left is employment.

It is the lack of gainful employment that caused someone to steal a bike from the side of our home 2 weeks ago.

It is a lack of gainful employment that drives a person to physically abuse their partner.

It is a lack of gainful employment that leads someone to sexually abuse a 10 year old child.

Or is it personal choice and responsibility?

Should a bad decision 20 years ago such as a DUI, public intoxication, simple possession impact your employment today?  Probably not.  The recent case of a bank employee in Iowa being fired after a background check revealed a conviction 49 years ago for putting fake coins in a laundry machine is absurd.  Actually it is stupid.

However, we need to understand how broad-brush restrictions such as the recent law in Indiana WILL impact our organizations.  Yes, it may help this victim of an ignorant bank.  But it will also open the door for career criminals to hide their past so that you do not receive the full picture during the pre-employment process.

So on this anniversary of 9-11-2001, it is critical that we understand the shifting tides with employment background checks and how that could impact our organizations.  Let your voices be heard.

Join us for a webinar on the new Indiana laws restricting criminal history checks.  Register today.

9-11 Anniversary: 5 Lessons that Relate to a Criminal Record Check

criminal record checkWow, a decade has passed since 9-11.   It is a date that defines our history like Pearl Harbor (12/7/41), D-Day (6/6/44) and JFK’s assassination (11/22/63). 9-11 was the Pearl Harbor of our generation.  An attack on our people on our soil.

I remember every detail of that day like it was yesterday.  Part of that is because I was in Washington D.C. and only a short distance from the Pentagon.

I walked out of my hotel  on the morning of 9-11,  a few blocks from the White House, and hailed a cab for a short ride to my first meeting.  I was making a presentation on violence prevention to CSOSA federal probation officers.

The cab driver had the radio cranked and windows down.  It was a clear, beautiful morning.  I remember thinking how much I love the energy of large cities.

I also thought about a later meeting across the river at the Pentagon with the Department of Defense Domestic Violence Task Force to finalize a training curriculum on family violence prevention and intervention.

It was going to be a crazy day.  Little did I know.

At 8:30AM I bounced up the steps to the Federal CSOSA Building on K Street and was faced with a sophisticated security system. Two armed security guards and a screening checkpoint  that resembled an airport.

However, one of the security guards asked me if I was there for a meeting.  I told him I was speaking at a conference.  He ushered me past the security systems without checking me, my bags, my ID or verifying that I was indeed speaking at a conference.

Yikes, that was easy, I thought.

An hour later, I was in full presentation stride when somebody rushed into the room and screamed that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon and World Trade Centers.  We were under attack.  The participants fled the building like it was on fire.  I tried to digest the information and quickly realized my evening flight would probably be grounded.

When I hit the streets there were millions of people moving quickly away from central DC.  Mostly on foot.  No buses.  No Metro. What I remember most was the shell-shocked fear on everyone’s faces and that the only noise was the sound of news radio blasting from cars.  Nobody was talking.  The cell phone towers were overloaded.  People were hustling.

The first thing I did when I got to the hotel was turn on the TV and watched as the twin towers collapsed.   My stomach is twisting right now remembering all of this.

This past week I have been talking with my kids a lot about 9-11. Understanding that only one of my kids was even alive at the time, he was 2.

As I have watched the documentaries this week, the emotions have come rushing back.  I listen to all the mistakes that were made pre-9-11 and cannot help but relate that to background screening.

So I came up with 5 lessons from 9-11 that relate to a criminal record check:

  1. Polices are Only Effective if Followed.  The security process at the federal building I described earlier is indicative of a policy failure.  A policy without teeth is worthless.   If your background screening policy requires a background check then that applies to everybody…CEO, police officer, FBI agent or pastor.  No exceptions.
  2. Fractured Systems.  Clearly the big lesson from 9-11 was the agencies armed with protecting us did not and could not communicate.  The police and fire first responders could not communicate on the same radio frequencies.  An intelligence agency having information about the Hamburg Terror Cell and 9-11 plans did not communicate with the FBI because their attorneys would not allow them to.  Background checks are much like our intelligence community.  There is little sharing of information so a background check requires a screening program of checks and balances that rely on multiple layers or screening solutions including criminal databases and county courts.
  3. Complacency.  We have seen this again post 9-11.  I went back to the same federal building after 9-11 and the security process still allowed me to bypass it.  Complacency in with a criminal record check will get people hurt.
  4. The Enemy is Determined.  The masterminds of 9-11 planned it for years.  They were very patient and meticulous in their preparation.  This is a huge lesson for organizations working with vulnerable populations.  People who harm children seek positions that give them access to children.  They are extremely determined.  If your background screening process is weak, the enemy will exploit it.
  5. Looks Can Be Deceiving.  We have watched too many horror movies if we believe “bad people” look a certain way.  The 9-11 hijakers were not scary looking.  They were highly educated, intelligent and normal looking.   Even one airline ticket counter representative looked at Mohammed Atta and his “gut” instinct told him something was wrong.  Atta had purchased a one-way first class ticket for $2500 which was abnormal and he seemed angry.  The ticket rep pushed this aside and convinced himself Atta was a businessman by the way he dressed.  Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can predict if someone is good because of how they look or how long you have known them.  The airline representative had evidence but allowed Atta’s appearance to convince him that everything was okay.

As we pause to reflect on the tragedy of 9-11, we are going to hear a lot about system failures.  Let’s make a pledge to take these hard-learned lessons and improve the safety and security of our organizations.

Contact us today for a review of your background screening policy.