Background Checks in Higher Education

One of the most basic—and important—goals of background checks is to help keep people safe, something that's vital on college campuses filled with students, faculty, administration, staff, vendors, and visitors.

Given what's at stake, it might be easy for the average person to assume that all colleges and universities are required by law to screen anyone employed by the institution, but the truth is only a handful of states have specific laws or mandates requiring some form of criminal background checks.

Now, we're not suggesting that institutions outside of those states aren't conducting background checks. Most colleges do some form of screening. This article from the Los Angeles Times quotes a representative from an HR organization as saying "most institutions [of higher education] do require background checks of all new employees."

Our point is this: we believe every institution of higher education would benefit from having a comprehensive, campus-wide program that screens all employees. Below, we provide reasons why along with next steps for college HR departments that either want to expand into a true "program" or improve their current one.

Why Comprehensive Background Checks Are Important in Higher Education

1. Everyone working on college campuses is human.

One of the concerns we hear from HR managers in higher education is the fear of offending top-tier talent (e.g., deans and professors) by having them undergo so-called "intrusive" employee screening.

We easily counter this rationale by pointing out that people who are held in such high regard should be held to even higher standards. The reality is professors and deans are human, which means they, too, can engage in problematic, offensive, and/or illegal behavior.

Here's a recent example of a Yale dean who lost her job after making racist comments online. Or consider this former Portland State University professor recently sentenced for uploading child pornography to his public blog on Tumblr.

quote-yelp-review[Source: The New York Times]

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Dr. Lori Handrahan cites in a 2017 article posted on Medium that her "research-in-progress details 162 professors and staff investigated, arrested and/or prosecuted on child sexual abuse related charges. This small sample does not represent the total number of professors and staff exposed for participating in these crimes."

So just because a person happens to work at a college doesn't mean they won't make mistakes or commit egregious acts like the ones referenced above.

2. Vulnerable populations deserve extra diligence.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 12.3 million college and university students were under the age of 25 in 2018.

No doubt, these young adults would love us to emphasize the word "adult" even though experience has taught the rest of us that this is still a vulnerable population. Many are living away from home for the first time and learning the ins and outs of becoming full-fledged grownups.

Providing a safe environment free from harassment, bullying, and predators is essential, and conducting comprehensive university background checks will go a long way in doing exactly that.

3. Mitigating risk is always a smart strategy. 

Think of how much lawsuits cost in terms of actual dollars. Now, think how much negative publicity costs—and in ways that extend way beyond the almighty buck.

For example, an article from Education Dive says that applications to Michigan State University decreased by 8.3% in the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal. The article goes on to cite a working paper from Harvard Business School that notes a "correlation between college scandals that draw extensive media coverage and a decrease in applications."

Campus scandals can adversely affect alumni and current students as well. Imagine the alum trying to get a job and needing to mention the disgraced university's name. Or think about current students who might have to foot the bill, literally, if tuition goes up to offset costs associated with a decrease in admissions and/or pricey lawsuits. Not to mention hikes in insurance premiums. All of these costs add up and the monies need to come from somewhere.

4. Bad hires can also cost universities big recruitment bucks.

The recruitment process for top-level positions is costly and lengthy, involving search committees and multiple rounds of interviews. (This Idaho University says the cost associated with its search process and moving expenses for new hires is $13,000.)

quote-high-cost-faculty[Source: University of Idaho]

A thorough background check, meaning one that goes beyond employment and education verification and criminal records and includes such options as social media screening, can provide further insight into the person's character. This can help ensure the college won't have to make this recruitment investment all over again due to something like racist tweets surfacing after the person has already been hired.

Creating a Comprehensive University Background Check Program

Whether your college or university wants to develop a truly comprehensive employee screening program or it's interested in auditing the current process, you should keep the following in mind.

1. Collaborate with a reputable employee screening vendor. 

Because colleges have so many different departments and different employee roles, it would be overwhelming for HR to "go it alone." A reputable vendor, like Good Egg, understands how to approach complex organizational structures and how to create a streamlined screening process for all employees.

Notice the word we used above: collaborate. You want a background check vendor that truly partners with your institution and takes the time to understand all of the different roles and the different levels of screenings needed. For example, you might not need to conduct social media screening on a part-time worker in the grounds department. But social media screening absolutely makes sense for employees who serve as the "face" of the institution, such as deans and faculty.

2. Bring all necessary people to the discussion early.

Head off any reluctance in adopting a comprehensive, campus-wide background check initiative by involving all key players up front, such as employee union leaders, department heads, and even a liaison from the institution's risk management insurance company. But know that even then, you could very well encounter resistance.

This article from the Los Angeles Times reports that a faculty group at Cal State felt that the "new" background check procedure was intrusive. "The group said it had no input in developing the policy and received no explanation of why new guidelines were needed. Under previous policy, campus presidents determined whether a job was sensitive — caring for minor children, controlling financial resources or accessing personal information, for example — and required a background check."

The article also notes, "The policy was developed over a two-year period, and all employee unions signed off, including the one representing faculty, said Lori Lamb, vice chancellor for human resources."

As this story suggests—and as you probably already know—comprehensive employee screening in higher education can spark much debate and friction. 

3. Consider the protocols around rescreening current employees and the screening process for employees of third party vendors. 

What's the rescreening protocol? Is there a rescreening protocol? A good example is adjunct faculty. What if an adjunct professor successfully passes the background check for the current academic year, takes the next academic year off, but then returns the following year? Does that person need to be rescreened?

You need to think through scenarios like this one along with many others. A vendor like Good Egg will proactively ask you these questions so you can have a compliant process in place for myriad situations.

Another point to ponder: how third-party contractors screen their employees. For example, let's say your university contracts a third party to run the kitchen and dining hall. You'd want to make sure that the third party vendor properly and compliantly screens its employees. Again, this is something to discuss with your screening partner.

4. Make the policy available on the school's website.

Complete transparency not only serves future job candidates, but also current students, prospective students, and their families. While researching this article, we came across excellent examples of institutions sharing their background check policies online.

5. Think beyond traditional criminal background checks. 

Employment/education verifications and criminal background checks are incredibly important. But they only report on the past. What employees do moving forward matters just as much—if not more.

Because so many university employees publicly represent the brand (think of all the faculty members who have social media accounts, websites, and personal blogs), conducting social media screening and ongoing social media monitoring makes a lot of sense. The same is true for other types of screening, like motor vehicle records or drug screenings. The college might benefit from conducting these screenings on employees with certain job titles.

What packages do you need? The answer to this question involves, once again, working with a reputable screening vendor, especially one that is capable of and interested in creating custom packages that are fair, compliant, and economical.

6. Avoid a "one-and-done" approach.

If you currently have an employee screening program, great! But that doesn't mean you shouldn't revisit it regularly and ask whether it's working. Don't be afraid to make changes or switch providers. We understand this can seem like a daunting task, but with the right provider, it doesn't have to be.

This is exactly what happened with one of our customers, a university in Ohio. A year ago, the university wasn't happy with its vendor. The school's director of human resources said they were dealing with high-cost background checks and the process to request the checks was time-consuming.

Luckily, the university learned about Good Egg and loved Good Egg's efficient approach.

Eight months later, the university is very happy with the change to Good Egg. The HR director recently said, "Instead of us completing a portion of a form, sending it to the applicant to complete and send back, and then entering the information manually into the background check website, we give Good Egg the candidate’s information and they take care of the rest. The process is much faster, much less work, and at a much lower cost."

Bottom line: don't be afraid to audit your current process, make changes, and ask your vendor probing questions.
If your vendor resists, that's a telltale sign you need a new partner.

And if you are looking to make a switch or you'd like to expand your current program, we'd love to chat so you can experience the Good Egg difference firsthand.

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Stephanie Haft

Posted by Stephanie Haft

Stephanie is the Marketing Manager at Good Egg, and avid quoter of Mel Brooks movies.

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