The majority of jurisdictions across the world operate some form of process whereby voluntary organisations can, with the consent of the relevant individual, ask for a check of an applicant’s criminal record.
What follows is a look at why organisations carry out criminal record checks of people applying to work in voluntary organisations, an exploration of why some people are resistant to the principle of criminal record checking applicants, and why many support it; and a discussion about the dangers of the perception of over-reliance on a criminal record check in the recruitment of new volunteers to your organisation.
WHY CRIMINAL RECORD CHECK AT ALL?
According to the Report of the National Task Force on the Criminal Backgrounding of America (p.6), the following reasons were given by organisations when surveyed on the rationale behind conducting criminal record checks of applicant (note that this was in a business and volunteer context):
- Public safety
- Compliance with legal requirements
- Limitation of liability
- Conditions of doing business
- Protection of vulnerable populations
- Customer assurance
- Avoidance of loss of business
- Fear of business loss, or public or media backlash over an incident caused by an individual with a past criminal record
- To regain public or customer trust
Views are broadly split into two different camps when it comes to the utility of having criminal background checks as part of volunteer recruitment processes.
The two camps are held in tension between on the one hand (a) organizations for whom access to data is deemed relevant to an individual’s application, and is a critical part of their decision making process on the suitability of an applicant; and, (b) on the other hand, individual applicants who feel that their rights to privacy of their personal information is being subjugated to the desire of the organization to which they’re applying to join to have the 'full picture' about prospective applicants.
These are necessarily competing tensions on the same spectrum, where an individual’s absolute right to privacy falls on one end of the spectrum; and on the other end of that spectrum falls an organisation’s desire to have transparent up date access to an applicant’s relevant criminal records.
Those advocates of an individual’s right to absolute privacy (as regards the checking of the presence or absence of their criminal records) assert that this right of privacy is one that should trump an organisation’s perceived requirement to have a full and thorough knowledge of an applicant’s background.
Such advocates believe that the routine seeking of criminal background checks are the symptom of an over-zealous organizational bureaucracy, that prioritises a tick-box mentality to recruiting new people into an organization, guarding against a risk so small as to outweigh the potential benefits of criminal record checks taking place. This view can then drive a principled stance on choosing not to get involved with organisations that require a criminal record check as part of their volunteer recruitment processes, eliciting such comments as:
I’m not going to “prove” I’m a worthwhile human being by submitting to a worthless process. And “If you don’t have anything to hide you shouldn’t have a problem with it” (as was said to me by an administrator at one school) is nonsense.
On the other hand, volunteer organizations counter this by pointing out that they are under very often legal, regulatory and insurance requirements that make it mandatory for them to take all reasonable measures to recruit people through a rigorous recruitment procedure, which today includes criminal background checks as one of the tools at their disposal.
So the biggest problem with criminal background checks is not so much in the criminal background checks themselves; it’s the perception that they are the rubber-stamping of an applicant’s suitability to a particular post. But, as the Irish criminal records authority puts it, the Garda Vetting Unit in Ireland:
All decisions in respect of the suitability of applicants for positions in registered organisation for Garda vetting [criminal record checks] are the sole responsibility of the registered organisation concerned. The Garda Central Vetting Unity has no input into any decision made in any registered organisation in respect of the suitability of an applicant for a position within such an organisation.
What the above makes clear, is that a criminal record check is simply one method of assessing a person’s suitability for a position within an organization.
So the answer to what is the biggest problem with criminal background checks, and how to fix it; it depends on the point of view of the person asking the question.
CRITICS -V- SUPPORTERS
To the critic of the modern day requirement of criminal background checks, who feels they’re a symptom an over-zealous bureaucracy, the biggest problem is that for many organisations today, if an applicant takes a principled stand and refuses to submit to such a check, they will, generally speaking, be automatically filtered out of an organisation’s application processes as having failed to comply with one of their required recruiting steps.
The fix to that ‘problem’? Accept that criminal record checks are a staple part of volunteer recruitment processes, especially where access is enabled to vulnerable groups (such as to children, and the elderly).
At the other end of the spectrum, where an organization is compelled, either by its own volunteer recruitment policies, or by statute, to oversee a process of criminal record checks for applicant volunteers, then that organization would do well to remember that such checks are merely one tool at their disposal in making an assessment of the suitability of an applicant to a particular position.
Should they fail to execute on a robust recruitment policy that also encompasses screening application forms, character reference forms, interviews, identity checks, board decisions, and training on induction; then they lay themselves open to the charge of over-reliance on criminal background checks.