Pre-employment Screenings: Three Strategies to Strengthen Your Processes in the Era of Workplace Violence

Pre-employment screenings and background checks for a healthy work environment 

Preventing workplace violence has risen to the top of the priority list for many business and HR leaders following the latest tragedies involving workplace shootings and assaults. The most recent deadly shooting that took place in Aurora, IL on February 15, 2019 involved an employee who fatally shot five of his co-workers and wounded five police officers during his termination meeting. This incident followed two workplace shootings that occurred in September 2018, only 24 hours apart: one at a software firm in Middleton, WI and one at a distribution center in Aberdeen, Maryland.

Not only is the frequency of workplace shootings rising, but the frequency of assaults in the workplace continues to be on the rise. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, assaults resulted in 18,400 injuries and illnesses involving days away from work and 458 fatalities in 2017 compared to 11,690 injuries and illnesses involving days away from work and 428 fatalities in 2011. Further, assaults were the fourth leading cause of work-related deaths in 2017. These staggering numbers leave business and HR leaders asking: what can we do to prevent workplace violence at our organization? One strategy that must be part of your workplace security and safety plan is to start with careful hiring practices.

While most organizations (95% according to a 2018 report sponsored by the National Association of Background Screeners) conduct some level of pre-employment background screening, it is critical that your organization has a thorough and consistent background screening process that is compliant with federal, state and local laws. Below are three ways to strengthen your background check and pre-employment screening practices.

1. Ensure Consistent Process while Complying with “Individual Assessment” Requirements

In 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released guidance that required employers to use “individual assessments” when evaluating candidate background checks during the hiring process. This prohibited employers from excluding all candidates with criminal records from being hired and recommended that, in addition to assessing each criminal record hit for job-relatedness and business necessity, employers must give applicants the opportunity to explain or resolve a criminal record uncovered through a background check.

The goal of the EEOC guidance was to limit the barriers to job opportunities for individuals in demographic groups with higher incarceration rates by prohibiting automatic exclusion from the candidate pool due to a prior criminal conviction.

This guidance was difficult to interpret and led some employers to discontinue running such in-depth background checks or stop running them all together, because if something was found, they couldn’t automatically eliminate that individual from consideration. This was not the intent or recommendation from the EEOC, but it was one of the results due to misinterpretation.

Experts would agree that employers should run in-depth background checks consistently for every new hire, in accordance with state and federal laws.

If a record comes back, the company can still exclude candidates from consideration if they have analyzed through a consistent process these three things:

  • The nature and gravity of the offense
  • The time that has passed since the offense
  • The nature of the job sought

Because compliance with the individual assessment requirement means considering results on a case-by-case basis, background check policies and procedures can vary greatly between different organization.

Further, a strong policy should be specifically based on a company’s industry, location, number of states with operations, volume of hiring, and demographic of the workforce. HR leaders should speak with an expert if they are unsure if their practices fit their organization’s specific needs.

2. Make Sure you are Looking Deep Enough

One common pitfall with employment screening is relying too much on commercial databases, which can contain incomplete information. Many employers, especially those with a high volume of hiring, look for the low-cost options for running background checks. Most times, these less expensive options rely only on search results from large data bases and do not include more in-depth or targeted courthouse checks.

Experts recommend that screening companies only use databases as a supplement to a more targeted courthouse check. This is because the large databases contain millions of records and must be combed through by experts who know how to use them. So, if a record is found, it must be pulled to make sure it’s complete, accurate, up-to-date and legal to report.

It is imperative that you check with your background check provider and ask what steps they use and how they follow-up on records found, to get a full picture of a candidate’s background.

3. Contact References & Verify Employment

Although many employers request references and previous employer’s contact information from candidates, many employers don’t follow-up with the contacts provided. Most commonly, this is due to lack of time or because they don’t get helpful information when they call, as employers typically have policies that prevent them from providing detailed information on an applicant.

While these frustrations are understandable, they should not deter companies from completing this exercise. Often, you’ll reach an employer who can provide some bit of helpful information. For example, when you ask if the employee is eligible for rehire and the employer says no, you could ask if the termination was voluntary or involuntary. Or, ask if they can provide the reason why the employee is not eligible for rehire. Most employers will also verify the dates of employment for a previous employee.

If any information that you receive through this process is inconsistent with information provided to you by the candidate, you should address these inconsistencies as red flags and follow-up with the candidate. Even if you are not able to get an abundance of insight through this process, you might be able to get pieces of information to assist in making a hiring decision.

The Bottom Line

Organizations must be diligent throughout their background and pre-employment screening processes to ensure they are not bringing someone in that could threaten the safety of their employees or customers. If your organization has not reviewed its background check processes within the last 12 to 18 months, we recommend that you do as a commitment to keeping the workplace safe.

For additional resources on background check and pre-employment screenings, please reach out to Sikich’s HR Advisory team.


How to Conduct Individualized Assessments in Background Checks, SHRM


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