Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Law Stuffs - Background Check

A few years ago now, there was a big to-do up at the Northwoods state capital when a case of fraud was investigated at Flagship U. From what little I remember (and little did I realize I should pay closer attention), an administrator had allegedly defrauded FU of a fair bit of money. The budget crunch was hitting the Northwoods then, as now, and people were angry. Who can blame them? Fraud is bad!

Then there was another case of criminal misconduct at FU, and the stacks blew.

Several years having passed, the reactions to these incidents has trickled down to the rest of the state system in the form of mandatory criminal background checks. They've now run criminal background checks on all of us employees, from (I suppose) the administrators who handle money to the students who make copies, answer phones, and so on in my department office. And we're going to do pre-emptive criminal background checks on job applicants, too.

I'm uncomfortable with the idea of criminal background checks for most jobs. If a criminal has served time, then shouldn't we mostly wipe the slate clean and say, okay, let's try again? I know little about the law, but I'm guessing there are a lot of people who've possessed some grass or whatever, got arrested, did probation or time or whatever, and then moved on. I know more than one person who's spent time in prison, got out, moved on, and "contribute to society."

[There really are relatively few ax murderers out there. Remember, more people are murdered on TV these days, but violent crime in the US is down, we're told. On the other hand, real crime doesn't lead to successful prosecution nearly as often as TV crime. TV, it seems, isn't reality. Who knew?]

But the rules in this case make me ask some questions:

Would this information have helped in any way to prevent the alleged crimes that prompted the powers that be to make the new rule?

How are we going to use the information once we get it? (Are we automatically NOT going to hire people if they've got a record? What counts as "bad enough" not to be hired?)

And, recently, I asked these very questions at a meeting with some big wigs. The answers (paraphrased):

Nope, the people charged with the crimes didn't have a prior record, so doing a background check wouldn't have helped.

We don't know. We don't have any policy. We don't have any rules that say we shouldn't hire someone if they have a criminal background.

So I followed up and asked why we were paying for criminal background checks when they wouldn't have prevented the thing they're put in place because of AND we don't have a policy to deal with potential issues?

The bigwig shrugged and smiled his assinine smile, the one that says "screw you Bardiac and all uppity women who ask questions." (I mostly feel pretty good about our administrators, but this guy, no. He got his job as an appointment through the good old boy network previously in place.)

I'm no legal expert. Heck, I've spent a fair bit of time reading Coke on inheritance and coverture, but still, really.

Even being no legal expert, I see the Northwoods University System setting itself up for a real legal headache because somehow, at some point, someone is going to deny an applicant a job based on this background check sans policy, and that applicant is going to sue for big time damages.

And what do all these background checks cost? Individually, not much, it seems. But remember, we don't hire only a few faculty folks a year, and this is a whole university system. So every student worker hired, background check. Every administrative assistant and library assistant, check. Every gardener and groundskeeper, check. That's a lot of wasted money, money that could be far better spent on just about anything else.

And yes, of course, when they background checked all of us here, they found several people with criminal records. And made a big to-do about it. At least, they made a big to-do about the maintenance guy. They didn't make a big to-do about the others for some reason. I'm guessing maybe they had a little more power than the maintenance guy (who'd served his time over a decade ago, and been working for the campus a while with no problems).

And no, of course the system board of directors don't get background checked. They're political appointees, and we all know that political appointees are pure, pure, pure as the driven snow.


  1. Wow, this is a big ol' can of worms it seems to me. Like you, I would feel a little creepy about insituting a "faux-policy" of doing background checks on everyone. And even if they say the info wouldn't adversely effect the decision to hire a job candidate, it seems like knowing that they did have a record might have a subconscious effect on a lot of the committee members. The process can be arbitrary enough when there are scads of really well qualified people applying for a position. This might be just another way to winnow the pile down a bit. How often might this information tip the scales subtlely?

    I'd like to hear how this progresses - please keep us informed?

  2. Oh, good point!

    It's doubtful to me that the committee would have any access to the information, though the dean might, and the provost certainly would.

  3. And the money that gets spent this way cannot get spent other ways -- on books, on scholarships, on keeping computer labs open, on hiring more groundskeepers, on raising the pay of the grondskeepers already working for us, or on giving them better healthcare. No, it's been wasted on useless background checks that do nothing but harm the world through bad faith.

  4. It seems logical to say that if a criminal has served out his sentence then all should be forgotten. But your past is the best predictor of your future. That's why FU requires transcripts from each applicant.

  5. Anonymous8:43 PM

    Some time ago, I got arrested. I also got pepper sprayed. I was charged with 'Remaining Whilst Forbidden' and 'Resisting an Officer'. The underlying cause of these 'crimes'? I was in a diabetic coma! (It turns out when unconscious, one does not leave when one is told to by a police officer). The charges were naturally dismissed, but I got to see what it is like to go to jail for a few hours. As it was my own university police force, I was advised not to sue. In fact I was lucky. Had they not pepper sprayed me, I would not have been seen by paramedics!

    A little over a year later, I took a trip to Canada. At immigration, the Canadians were very interested in the arrest (apparently, they had access to the records). Eventually, it was fine and I was able to enter the country. I was very happy they accepted my explanation of events, as I had no documentary proof of it on me. However, this is a sign of how risky this kind of 'check' can be. Apparently, even getting this minor and irrelevant kind of record can follow a person. Thus, there may be consequences worse than just the waste of money.

  6. I understand a check for a job that is bonded or a position in childcare, I've had to have them in both such cases. But a mandatory check for every job is just ridiculous "doing something for the sake of being able to say we're doing something" knee-jerkism. Petty bureaucrats, gotta love 'em.