The tragic event that occurred in Washington DC’s Navy Yard has sparked much discussion on the topic of background checks. While the complete story is still unfolding, the media has covered this topic well with the benefit of hindsight, but with arguably confusing results. How Aaron Alexis – an Information Technology contractor with secret government clearance – was allowed to be physically in that place and time, suggests a breakdown in the screening processes used to check employees before hire. That may not be what actually happened.
It is unknown exactly what occurred in terms of his background check or why, and we may never know. Alexis’ employer was The Experts, a third party provider of contract professionals. They in turn outsourced his employment check to an unnamed service provider that likely specializes in this field – a practice that is typical. However we can make some guesses about what happened based on how employment checks actually work. Like any service available to businesses, there are many options and price points. Alexis was likely hired due to choices made regarding the selection of tools used, rather than a failure of the actual tool. In all likelihood, a federal-level criminal check was performed, and possibly driving record review, but not a state-level criminal screen.
The term background check is broad and has been used to describe at least three different screening purposes used in this matter: the military’s background check used to provide the security clearance to work at the Navy Yard; the employer’s background check used to qualify Alexis for employment; and the gun store’s background check used to sell the weapon. The topic has been discussed in a blended manner that may be confusing.
Staffing firms providing skilled employees for assignments of a limited duration – aka contractors – can provide various levels of background checks, usually at their client’s request and on negotiated terms. In this case The Experts was the employer and they were responsible for ensuring the employer’s background check was completed according to requirements stated by their client.
Focusing only on the variables affecting the check used for employment screening, what is now known about Alexis’ background probably made a thorough review of his non-military past more challenging for these reasons:
No felonies: While two gun-related offenses occurred resulting in minor property damage in 2004 & 2010, there was only a misdemeanor charge for the former and no charge for the latter; a disorderly charge sustained in 2008 was also a misdemeanor.
Geography: These offenses occurred in Seattle, Washington, Fort Worth, Texas and Dekalb, Georgia, respectively. In the world of contract work today, far-ranging work or home addresses are not uncommon, especially in the military.
State laws: Each state may have a different definition for similar offenses. The line separating a misdemeanor from a felony in the case of property damage can be defined by the cost of the damage incurred. A charge of “malicious mischief” (a gross misdemeanor) was incurred by Alexis in Seattle because the tire damage he inflicted on a construction worker’s vehicle was less than $750, despite a gun being used to commit the crime. A Class C felony in Seattle for the same crime is defined as property damage in the range of $750-$5000.
Background checks used as an input to hiring decisions offer many options. Just as the woodworker has options in his toolbox to manipulate wood, businesses have options for checking their candidates before hire.
As a starting point, database checks can be performed in multiple ways: federal criminal, state criminal (by household address or work location), county criminal, county civil, driving violations, sexual offenders, terrorist watch, employment or education verification, professional licensure verification, bankruptcies, liens and judgments, and many more. Each tool has a separate price, and may be used individually or bundled together to create custom screening based on an employer’s needs. Depending on what is desired, fees can typically run $3 to $25 dollars for each domestic check, and $50-$150 for each international check, per candidate.
Aaron Alexis’ background was checked by for employment purposes twice in the six months before the Navy Yard massacre, and reportedly only a minor traffic violation was uncovered. Given this result, it is hard to imagine that a state-by-state or county criminal check based on work location or home address was performed. Otherwise, the misdemeanors committed should have been discovered. Again, we do not know which specific screens (databases) were selected by the employer and performed by the unknown service provider.
Background checks are made up of many tools, and they may be used with confidence by all business owners and managers either directly or via a staffing firm. However, each check accesses a unique database, and no one tool will make a complete piece of furniture. Which tool or combination of tools selected is a matter of choice based on the requirements needed for a particular company or role, and the willingness of the employer to pay for the checks selected.
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