Criminal background checks, along with other invasive screens like credit checks and even psychological screenings, are becoming increasingly popular, even among nonprofit employers.
But these tests often do little more than reinforce existing biases, and give no credible information about the likelihood of an employee to succeed.
As an executive search consultant, I often work with my nonprofit clients to determine how their high-level candidates will be evaluated, and how they’ll select their next leader. These are high-stakes jobs: executive directors, COOs, development directors and CFOs. The people in these positions have access to bank accounts, personnel files, and ultimately can make or break an organization.
It’s understandable—even commendable—that boards and executives who are hiring these sensitive positions want to do the highest possible level of screening for any risk in the hire.
That’s why when I work with clients on searches, we develop interview questions that will reveal as much about character as they do about experience.
We are thoughtful about risk areas, and work to address them through the interview and reference process. Reference checks are a serious business for me; I rarely spend less than 15 minutes, and have talked for as long as 45, with former employers, staff, or other professional references for a top candidates.
But there are a few things I won’t do. I won’t run a criminal background check, or request a credit report. And although I do think they’re invasive and cross the privacy line, that’s not why I refuse to order these checks (which generally have to be purchased from an agency) for my clients.
The reason I won’t do them is because they provide no helpful information about the candidate, or those risk areas.
Here’s what you will and won’t learn from a background check or other invasive screenings:
- You WILL learn if your candidate has been convicted of most major crimes.
- You WON’T learn if your candidate has committed (or tried to commit) a crime.
- You WON’T learn if your candidate is likely to commit a crime.
Since our criminal justice system is heavily biased in favor of white people and people with money, those folks are much less likely to be convicted of a crime, regardless of whether they committed one or not. Similarly, people of color and people who are not able to afford good legal representation are much much more likely to be convicted of a crime — whether they committed one or not.
What does this mean? It means that any data we collect from a criminal background check is unreliable at best as an account of what may or may not have happened. Essentially, it means that you pay some agency money to confirm that we do, in fact, have a racist, biased criminal justice system.
Here’s what you will and won’t learn from a credit report:
- You WILL learn if your candidate has filed for bankruptcy or had a foreclosed home.
- You WON’T learn anything about how your candidate will manage your organization’s finances.
- You WON’T learn anything about your candidate’s priorities or decision-making abilities.
You know what the most common cause of bankruptcy is? Medical bills. Not financial mismanagement or overspending. And particularly since nonprofit jobs tend to pay a less than those in the private sector, it’s really easy for a responsible, reasonable person to get stuck in a bad financial position fast.
Look—many of our systems are unfairly rigged against people of color and people without access to wealth. Rather than put our faith in systems that we know to be flawed—and that many of us are actively fighting against as part of our nonprofit mission—put some faith (and some relationship-building work) in your own community, where your candidate has likely been living and working for years.
Talk with a reference. Ask your candidate questions. Strengthen your internal controls. But don’t give credence to a broken system’s data, or you’re likely to miss the big picture and perpetuate institutional inequity, which is a terrible jumping off point for such a high-stakes hire.