Employee Background Check Lessons from Joe Paterno

employee background checkJoe Paterno fired.  His 46 year run as the head football coach at Penn State over. Some might think this was very abrupt.  A career sidelined in a blink of an eye.  However this has been brewing for more than 15 years.

As I have followed the news reports, I have thought about what are the employee background check lessons can we learn from this tragedy?

First, let’s quit referring to this as a scandal.  This is not a consenting adult in the oval office.   The term scandal undermines the vicious, violent attacks scores of young boys allegedly endured at the hands of former Penn State Assistant Football Coach Jerry Sandusky.

Let me digress and speculate that the trail of damaged young boys surely goes further back than1994.  Why?  Because sexually abusing young boys is not a midlife crisis.

Sandusky started his football career at Penn State in 1964.  Do you want me to believe that this insatiable desire to rape and sodomize children started in the twilight of his football coaching career?

Now let’s be clear that Sandusky has only been arrested and charged for these crimes and is innocent until proven guilty.  I get that.  I don’t need a flood of comments from irritated readers, hiding behind false names and fake email addresses, explaining due process and how law enforcement, the courts, society and background screening firms are corrupt and are out to get innocent people like Jerry Sandusky.

Let’s take a look at the allegations against Jerry Sandusky.

  • 1977 founds Second Mile to work with troubled children from dysfunctional families.  Was his mission to help or prey on vulnerable young boys?
  • 1998 Sandusky admits to investigators that he showered with an 11 year old boy and that it was wrong.  District Attorney Ray Gricar does not file criminal charges.  Would a grown man showering with a young boy violate any policies within your organization?
  • 1999 Sandusky retires from Penn State.
  • 2000 a janitor in the Lasch Football Building at Penn State observes Sandusky performing oral sex on a young boy in the shower.   Is it possible the janitor’s vision was distorted by inhaling too many cleaning chemicals?
  • 2002 a grad assistant walks into the football locker room and observes Sandusky subjecting a young boy (10 years old) to anal intercourse in the shower.  Did the grad assistant mistake this for something innocent?
  • Grad assistant tells Coach Paterno who then notifies Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley.
  • Grad assistant is called to a meeting with Curley and VP of Finance and Business Gary Schultz later in the month where he is told they will look into it.
  • Grad assistant hears from Curley that Sandusky’s locker room keys have been taken and that The Second Mile was notified.
  • Grad assistant is never interviewed by investigators until a Grand Jury in December 2010.
  • 2005 Sandusky meets another young boy through The Second Mile.
  • 2008 Clinton County High School notifies authorities after victim’s mother discloses he has been sexually abused by Sandusky.
  • 2008 PA Attorney General initiates an investigation.
  • Sept. 2010 Sandusky retires from The Second Mile to spend more time with family.
  • Nov 5, 2011 Sandusky arrested and arraigned on 40 criminal counts and released on $100,000 bond.
  • Nov 7, 2011 Curley and Schultz charged with failing to report the complaints against Sandusky.
  • Nov 9, 2011 Joe Paterno fired.

Ugly.  Ugly.  Ugly.

Well, there has to be some employee background check lessons can we learn from this?

The first lesson is access.   The incidents that cost Paterno, Curly, Schultz and Spanier their jobs (and Curly and Schultz a possible criminal record) happened AFTER Sandusky retired.  But they still allowed him access to the football facilities where he allegedly raped young boys.

As an employer we must do everything we can to prevent the Sanduskies of the world from gaining access to our organizations.  That means we commit ourselves to quality criminal background screening and comprehensive reference checks.  Yes, Sandusky did not have a criminal record but what would quality reference checks have revealed?

Second, the safety and security of children is a moral and legal obligation.  How could Joe Paterno, Curly, Schultz and University President Spanier allow so many victims to be harmed by remaining silent?

The life lesson is you have a moral obligation to speak out when you witness injustice.  That does not mean covering it up.  That does not mean asking someone to resign from your organization under a cloud of suspicion and allowed to move on.

This means drawing a line in the sand and saying I will do whatever it takes to stop you!

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.