With the recent tragedy at valve manufacturer Henry Pratt Company, background checks have moved into the foreground. In a shooting at the company’s Aurora, Illinois facility, several people were wounded. Five Pratt employees lost their lives, as did the gunman, who was being terminated the day it happened.
This senseless tragedy is now leading to growing concern about workplace violence and if such violence can be prevented by more strenuous background checks.
Background screening and the Fair Credit Reporting Act
While workplace violence cannot always be prevented or predicted, background checks can be a first line of defense in assessing risk. That’s why employers must understand their options, based on their hiring criteria and circumstances, to conduct the right type of check.
In the US, background screening falls under the Fair Credit Reporting Act or FCRA, a set of federal guidelines that regulates hiring practices. The FCRA requires consumer reporting agencies to “follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy.” A seven-year background check of primary source information can be considered “following reasonable procedures” and is also considered a best practice in the industry.
The reality is, a background check is only as good as the day it’s run. It was revealed that the shooter was arrested six times while he was employed. However, most employers are not obligated to continue to perform background checks after a person is employed.
Post-employment screening is happening in the finance and healthcare fields, as those industries are fraught with more risk. Healthcare providers need to ensure their workers are not added to the sex offender registry; banks need to ensure their employees are not on the terrorist watch list. Transportation / small parcel delivery companies are also a prime target for continuous monitoring of their drivers’ motor vehicle records and other checks, since they deal with the public. Drug testing is done routinely and randomly for other positions involved in public safety, like commercial airline pilots.
Now, because of what happened to Pratt, companies of all kinds and across all industries are asking if they should adopt continuous employee monitoring as a standard HR process.
Background screening quality and veracity
You are right to inquire about the veracity of background checks and the quality of the screening providers. As reported in the news, the shooter was initially screened for his job in 2004. Public records reveal that he was convicted of aggravated assault in Mississippi in 1995, nine years prior—but most screens go back seven years, which has become the norm and also all that is required, and in some cases, all that is allowed by law.
Also, the quality of background checks just 15 years ago is nothing like what it is today. Back then, screening agencies were still picking up the phone and relying on personal references, if they were even checked at all. Today, the data from most local court systems is much easier to access and the process is much faster for getting the most current and accurate results.
However, there is no perfect background check, and you really do get what you pay for. A $19.99 quick search on the internet will get some results—but the data might be 6+ months old and not robust enough to find certain infractions. In fact, two different checks were run on the gunman only a few months a part that yielded different information. The key is layering the right screening products on top of each other to ensure you are being as thorough as possible and screening for what you need, based on the parameters of the law within your state and county.
Pre-employment risk and post-employment liability
Employers must balance the privacy concerns of prospective employees and the safety concerns of current employees, customers and third parties. The FCRA was created to ensure privacy, accuracy, and fairness of consumer information, which is accomplished by having a set standard for collecting, disseminating and using consumer information. And it is open season right now, as job candidates are suing big firms and background screening companies for FCRA violations. This is the type of lawsuit that can cost companies millions if they don’t understand the risks or are not working with a background screening partner who knows the landscape.
The FCRA is compounded by EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) regulations and each state’s own employment laws. On top of that, a county can specify even more restrictions on what info can be screened and if or how it can be used in making a hiring decision. For instance, in DuPage County, where the shooting took place, if a person committed a felony and had the record sealed or expunged, it’s illegal for the background screening company to look for or report this data.
To avoid these types of lawsuits, some employers might choose to forgo background checks. But then they could get hit on the other side with negligent hiring lawsuits if the employer knew or should have known that the person hired created a foreseeable danger to others. In this case in Aurora, it would be difficult to claim negligent hiring as there were no incidents from the shooter during 15 years as an employee.
Background checks and workplace violence prevention
What can employers do to prevent workplace violence in their own places of business? First, understand your risk. Although every employer must be aware and prepared, some industries and professions are at higher risk than others for workplace violence.
I found these statistics from McGowan Program Administrators, a national insurance underwriter and program manager:
- Workplace violence is the second leading cause of work-site deaths in the country, after automobile accidents. (Source: Occupational Safety and Health Administration)
- People working in healthcare and social services make up the vast majority of workplace violence incidents tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
- Other occupations prone to workplace violence include (in order of number of incidents reported to BLS): trade, transportation, and utilities; retail; leisure and hospitality; education (mostly elementary/secondary schools); food and beverage service; transportation and warehousing; and professional and business services.
Regarding background checks and background check providers, we recommend the services of screening companies that are registered members of the NAPBS—National Association of Professional Background Screeners—which are large, well-known, reputable firms. All of our recommended vendors provide indemnification to our clients in case of an FCRA breach.
Background screening services
CCM will assess your best options while reducing overall spend on background screening and other HR expenses. Learn more, including an example of the vendor assessment matrix we customize for each client.
Additional resources on workplace violence prevention:
The following are from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM):