Background Checks for All: Lessons from the Alleged Archdiocese Theft
Anita Collins, an elderly woman working as an accounts payable clerk for the New York Archdiocese, was recently arrested for embezzling funds from the church. That’s bad news for the archdiocese. But the real black eye for the church is that the entire experience could have easily been prevented. Had the church run a simple criminal background check on Collins, they would have seen that she had a felony conviction for stealing funds from her previous job, and had pled guilty to a misdemeanor when charged with criminal forgery and grand larceny. In fact, she was still on probation for the felony conviction when she was hired by the archdiocese. Given her criminal past, putting her in a position where she had direct access to church funds would fall under the category of poor management decisions.
What this situation teaches us is not just that the archdiocese should have run a criminal background check on the woman—that’s obvious. The real lesson here is the importance of timing. Collins was hired shortly before the archdiocese instituted a policy requiring background checks for all new hires. The church had chosen to make background checks retroactive for existing employees who worked with minors, but they made no such allowance for employees with access to church funds. As the archdiocese spokesman explained, “It was just a happenstance of timing that [Collins] was hired just almost immediately before the program was instituted.”
Clearly, the church should have made background checks retroactive for a broader pool of existing employees. A reasonably prudent policy would have required a background check for new and existing employees entrusted with financial responsibilities. In other businesses, background checks may also be in order for employees with access to trade secrets, or with access to other employees’ confidential personal or medical information.
Now, you’re thinking, I have a background policy in place and all new employees that have these posts are rigorously scrutinized. Well, good. But does that same level of scrutiny also apply to internal promotions whose new posts now give them access to funds or sensitive information? Sure, a background check on an internal candidate may seem unnecessary. After all, she’s been working for you for a while, and you believe that you don’t have to confirm that she is trustworthy, reliable, a good team player—clearly you think so or else you wouldn’t be promoting her. Or maybe it feels invasive to conduct a criminal background check at this point. Perhaps you assume that you know her so well that suspecting that she’s been lying or withholding information all this time is a betrayal of sorts.
But due diligence requires that we take a step back and look at a situation anew. If this person had been an external candidate for this position, she would have been subject to a much more rigorous vetting process. An internal promotion is not a time to get lazy, or to assume that because there have been no red flags up to now everything will remain fine in the future. Or to be afraid of what you’ll find out. It’s so easy for companies to give themselves an out when it comes to due diligence. Don’t do it. Make it company policy that everyone, be they an internal promotion or external hire, who has access to funds, trade secrets, confidential information, and/or minors is subject to thorough due diligence, including a criminal background search. That’s the only way you can have peace of mind that you've done all you can to protect your organization’s best interests.