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Screening staff and volunteers

By Scott Harkins

Religious organizations are a community within themselves, built on faith and trust. It’s within that trust that some have faced nightmare scenarios because of the people that represent them. People they think they know and they trust. Let’s briefly discuss a couple of areas.

Sexual abuse. Consider the following example: A religious organization uses volunteers to lead or monitor activities with youth. It doesn’t complete the same screening process for volunteers as for employees. Five years ago, a volunteer was convicted of sexual assault in another state. Failing to conduct a multi-jurisdictional criminal background check, the church is now vulnerable to a convicted sex offender roaming its halls.

Theft / embezzlement. According to a study cited by the Washington Post, nonprofits and religious organizations suffer one-sixth of all major embezzlements — second only to the financial services industry.
Take reasonable measures to mitigate risk, including …

Job descriptions. To effectively screen, it’s important to have a job description that sets the expectations for the position — duties, physical and mental functions, minimum qualifications and time / training requirements.

Use job descriptions when advertising for a position. When planning for candidate interviews, formulate questions directly from the job description. It’s important that interview questions don’t broach legally dangerous topics such as pregnancy, religion or marital status, and that similar questions are posed for every applicant to demonstrate selection is based on comparative skills, qualifications and abilities.

Include a written application, face-to-face interview, background checks and reference.

Background checks. Run criminal background checks for full- and part-time employees and volunteers. Pay particular attention to those who work directly with youth, or handle financial matters or cash.

Confirm criminal background checks are completed in an applicant’s current jurisdiction and in all jurisdictions where he or she has lived. Persons convicted of crimes often move to avoid barriers to future employment or volunteer opportunities.

confindential-art-backgroundchecksWhen faced with the prospect of discipline or even dismissal, an existing employee or volunteer might choose not to divulge a recent arrest or criminal conviction. So, periodically check for current employees and volunteers.

Legal risks and criminal backgrounds. A church might be held liable for negligent hiring, selection or retention where it’s established that:

  • It knew (or should have known) the employee or volunteer had a particular unfitness for the position so as to create a danger of harm to other workers, patients or third parties.
  • Such unfitness was known (or should have been known) at the time of hiring, selection or retention.
  • The unfitness proximately caused the claimed injury.

Other background checks to consider: professional licenses and degrees; professional references; Social Security Number (SSN) verification; and Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) check.

Analyzing criminal records. Assess background check results in their entirety, including mitigating factors such as nature of the offense; whether that nature of the offense is job-related; when the offense occurred; and what steps the individual has taken since to improve his or her life.

Base criminal background screening criteria on convictions, not arrests. A religious organization might consider arrests for which applicants could be disqualified from employment or a volunteer position if a guilty verdict were rendered. Be wary of instituting human resources policy or procedure language that suggests a criminal felony conviction automatically results in a denial of an employment or volunteer opportunity.

Well worth the investment. It might not be possible to measure the direct and indirect costs of not performing due diligence which results in injury, abuse, neglect, theft, embezzlement or other wrongdoing — but consider the damage that can occur.

Scott Harkins is senior vice president, Risk Control Services at Glatfelter Insurance in York, PA.

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