Magazine article Academe

Background Checks: When the Past Isn't Past

Magazine article Academe

Background Checks: When the Past Isn't Past

Article excerpt

Should youthful drug use bar someone from getting a faculty appointment? What about that ticket for reckless driving? Should someone who has filed for bankruptcy be allowed to teach English? Or accounting? Questions like these challenge faculty and administrators who consider instituting background check policies.

With our litigious society, and the heightened national interest in security, the issue of employers conducting background checks on employees and applicants is increasingly salient. Faculty are concerned about privacy intrusions, and administrations wonder if background checks are the answer to employment liability and security concerns. The law does not generally prohibit investigations into employees' or applicants' backgrounds, and background checks have become common practice in the corporate sector. However, such investigations can be problematic, especially in academics.

For example, University of Texas faculty concerns about privacy and a negative effect on recruiting led to a very public debate about a proposed background check policy. Officials responded to concerns by scaling back the policy to apply only to "security sensitive" positions. It is concerns like these, perhaps, that lead most institutions that implement background checks to do so on a limited basis, and rarely apply them to faculty.

Background checks allow employers to check on employees' financial, criminal, and civil history. They can be as "minor" as a credit report, or so extensive as to include interviews with neighbors and friends. A typical report might consist of a criminal or civil records check, employment verification, reference checks, and educational verification. Much of this information is public and is available for a fee to any employer.

However, there are also consumer protections that allow individuals to know what information is being sought and provided. Under the federal Fair Credit and Reporting Act (FCRA), employers must obtain an applicant's written permission before obtaining a report from a consumer reporting agency bearing on an individual's "character, general reputation, personal characteristics or mode of living" to use in evaluating employment eligibility. Employers who take adverse action because of something in the report must provide notice and a copy of the report used before taking the action. Individuals must also be given the opportunity to see, contest, and correct erroneous reports. …

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