COVID-19 and Background Screening
Print Issue: December 2020
For a few fortunate companies, the coronavirus pandemic has spiked demand for their goods and services. The urgency of getting more people on the job—paired with the delay in getting background information from courts and other institutions that are operating under reduced hours—has put overburdened grocery stores, shipping companies, delivery services, pharmacies, and some manufacturers in a bind. Some have instituted on-the-spot hiring policies, waiving screening.
Before the pandemic, skincare company The Body Shop announced plans to institute an “open hiring” policy in the summer of 2020, eliminating background checks. That policy embraces the spirit of “Ban the Box” laws, which prohibit companies from asking about an applicant’s criminal history before making a hiring offer.
Even some organizations with normal hiring levels have adjusted their policies. On 7 April 2020, for example, Rutgers University reported a “COVID-19 temporary relaxation of Background Checks for Staff and Faculty Positions Policy,” which allows candidates to start work pending the completion of a background check as long as the person clears the sex offender portion of the check.
Screening expert Nick Fishman says that firms may be setting themselves up for a catch-22 by forgoing screening. “What if you hire someone with a disqualifying record and the person performs their job well?” he asks. “Then you run the background check and realize you have liability on your hands by keeping them on, or risk firing them and facing wrongful termination litigation,” he adds.
“If you keep the employee on, you’ve set precedent that those with generally disqualifying records aren’t really a threat. Now that you know, you’ve also assumed a risk if that person engages in a criminal activity on the job,” Fishman explains. Once you resume conducting background checks, plaintiffs’ attorneys might pounce, claiming you have set a precedent that checks aren’t necessary, he says.
Melissa Sorenson, executive director of the Professional Background Screening Association, observes that most employers aren’t completely sidestepping background checks during the coronavirus pandemic. Criminal checks are being conducted but employment and education verification might be delayed.
Companies that suspend background checks during the pandemic or at any other time likely want to tell new staff what to expect, however. “It’s probably a good idea to let your new hires know that you do intend to do a check after the fact,” Sorenson says.
Louis R. Mizell, Jr., is a former intelligence operative and analyst with the U.S. Department of State who has served in 105 countries. He has written nine books on security and terrorism, appeared on programs such as Oprah and The Today Show, and has been quoted or cited in more than 400 publications.
Michael A. Gips, CPP, is the principal at Global Insights in Professional Security, a firm that provides security content, security strategy, and business development. The former Chief Global Knowledge & Learning Officer at ASIS International, he has published more than 1,000 articles on security. Mizell and Gips have developed a knowledge base of more than 3 million crime and security incidents divided into 100 interrelated systems, including background screening.