A Safe Check? Background checks under the microscope after shipyard shootings

As the nation deals with another mass shooting, the issue of background checks has been raised. Research any company specializing in background checks and you’ll quickly find that one of the main reasons for conducting background checks is to ensure employee safety. Simply put, background checks are used to investigate a person’s history, including criminal records.

USIS, a government contractor, now says it conducted a background check of Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis back in 2007. It had initially said it did not conduct the check on Alexis. USIS is the biggest private contractor handling background checks for the government. The company is now under criminal investigation about whether it mislead the government about the thoroughness of its background checks.

Such checks are a way of life in the 21st century job world. So what happened in the Navy Yard case? For one thing, timing. Records show Alexis was involved in a shooting incident in 2004. The incident was apparently labeled “malicious mischief”. Other incidents involving Alexis and law enforcement happened years after the initial background check. One government official says the Alexis background check was in complete compliance with investigative standards. Experts also told the Washington Post the aim of the system is not to identify people struggling with mental health issues. Rather, the clearance process is designed to filter out people at risk for leaking classified information. This is worth noting because USIS is the same contractor that conducted a background check on NSA leaker Edward Snowden. Now there are questions being raised if USIS encouraged employees to push through multiple background checks over a short period of time.

Does this mean the system failed since background checks will almost always include a look at criminal records? Alexis was involved in incidents with law enforcement but charges were never filed. Still lawmakers are set to take a look at security clearances related to the Navy Yard shootings.

For employers, background checks are also about minimizing risks. This means checking out a person’s history and qualifications to reduce the chances of productivity problems, legal issues and workplace safety issues.

Last week’s shooting leads to inevitable questions like “How did this happen?” and “How can this be prevented?” We’ll likely learn more in the coming weeks about the Navy Yard shooter and what could or should have been done.
Despite the tragedy at the Navy Yard, and the unanswered questions, the fact remains that extensive checks are a key tool for employers in the hiring process.