Q&A: background check basics

Professional advice on what’s required for volunteers versus staff


Brian Gleason, MBA
Senior Risk Manager
GuideOne Insurance

For many churches, a background check is the only line of defense employed when screening volunteers and staff. Is it enough? 

Brian Gleason: A background check is a best practice in searching for any previous convictions since previous behavior is the best indicator of future behavior. However, the research done by organizations like MinistrySafe indicates that 90 percent of offenders never encounter the justice system. In addition, background checks often provide very limited information. This is especially true for younger applicants and those who are migratory.

In contrast, what does a truly comprehensive screening and background check process look like? 

Gleason: The first step is to thoroughly screen the backgrounds of all employees and volunteers. Applicants with good intentions will not be offended, and the process often scares off unwanted individuals. 

1) Written application — All persons seeking to work or volunteer should complete and sign a written application. The application should request basic information from the applicant and inquire into previous experience working or serving in a similar capacity (if the position involves working with children, you will want to have specific questions devoted to the applicant’s experience with children), previous affiliation with organizations, references and employment information and disclosure of any previous criminal convictions. The application form should be kept confidential and on file.

2) Personal interview — Upon completion of the application, schedule a face-to-face interview with the applicant to discuss his or her suitability for the position. 

3) Reference checks — Before permitting an applicant to work or serve, check at least two of the applicant’s references. These should include professional references as well as personal or family references, preferably from organizations where the applicant has worked in a similar capacity. If the position calls for working with children or vulnerable individuals, you will want to contact the individual’s references to determine the applicant’s history in working with children. Keep the results of the reference checks confidential and on file with the individual’s application. 

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4) Criminal background check — After securing the proper permissions, you should conduct a background check of the applicant. That background check should include the National Sex Offender Registry as well as a criminal history for any county in which the applicant has lived for the previous seven years. Exclude individuals with a criminal history that includes any violent offenses or offenses that victimize children from contact with minors. Like the application and the reference checks, you should keep the results of the criminal background confidential and on file.

5) GuideOne customers have access to discounted background check services through our relationship with preferred providers. For more information, please see our Human Resource Services Landing Page at www.guideone.com/HRServices.

Do your screening / vetting recommendations differ depending on if a person is a staff member or a volunteer? 

Gleason: We recommend thoroughly screening all individuals who will potentially interact with children or other vulnerable individuals regardless of the employment relationship. However, we recommend that organizations discuss this with local counsel as state employment law might limit or clarify certain parts of the screening process. For example, in some states, employers may not legally ask applicants about their criminal history on an employment application.

Likewise, do your recommendations differ depending on the role each person will serve? 

Gleason: The risks associated with working with children and vulnerable individuals and the potential for misconduct mandates that the screening process should become more thorough and comprehensive. Risk increases when frequency of contact increases and accountability decreases as power and control increase. In a church setting, for example, the screening process for a children’s pastor who might have daily personal and private interactions with children should be more comprehensive than that for the volunteer who serves snacks or paints faces at the annual carnival in the middle of the parking lot once each year.

What advice do you have for selecting the best possible background checks provider?

Gleason: We would recommend thoroughly reviewing the abilities, accreditation and compliance of any provider. It is also important that they be able to provide you with timely and accurate information in a format in which you can digest it. For small organizations, individual reports provided as needed might work. For larger organizations, it might be important to work with a provider that can return information through an electronic dashboard. Keep in mind that you typically get what you pay for. While cost is a factor, selecting the inexpensive option that doesn’t truly give comprehensive results could result in problems in the future.

For existing volunteers and staff, should background checks be instituted retroactively? 

Gleason: Thoroughly screen all employees and volunteers who interact with children or other vulnerable individuals. This is true even for those who have been serving previously.

Be transparent with the employee or volunteer. We recommend that the discussion focus on the safety of all that the organization serves. While it might be possible to streamline the reference checks and personal interviews of long-term employees and volunteers, it is critical to secure a criminal history for all who interact with children. It will help if written application and background check materials are clearly stated and easy to complete. In some cases, much of this information can be provided online through a portal provided by the background check vendor.

Once a staff member or volunteer is screened and brought onboard, should they be re-screened at some point? 

Gleason: Making a reasonable effort to access past criminal records has become a standard of care in child-serving organizations, and a criminal history check should be performed on all employees and volunteers on a regular cycle. Many industry leaders recommend checking every two years, but some child-serving organizations (including preschools and daycares) in some states are subject to licensure requirements which require more frequent updates.

— Reporting by RaeAnn Slaybaugh

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