Background Screening for Violence Prevention: What Checks Do Retailers Make? Are They Enough?

In the nation’s third workplace shooting in 24 hours, a temporary worker at a Rite Aid distribution center in Aberdeen, MD, opened fire on her coworkers, killing three and wounding several others before shooting herself. Authorities didn’t initially identify a motive and said she reported for work as usual before carrying out the attack with a single Glock 9-millimeter handgun.

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Although it’s unclear at this point what measures might have helped avert the tragedy, a viable workplace violence prevention effort must include sufficient background screening to avoid hiring individuals with a history of violent workplace acts or who appear to pose a threat to others.

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Anyone with unrestricted access to company facilities poses a violence risk and thus should undergo “pre-employment” screening and background investigation, experts warn. Yet, according to national surveys, the “extended workforce,” including consultants, contract labor, and temporary and vendor personnel, are screened one-third as often as permanent, full-time workers.

According to General Information Services’ 2017 Retail Industry Background Screening Benchmarking Report, holiday and temporary workers undergo fewer checks that might indicate a propensity for violence. “Slightly less background screening is conducted on part-time employees and even less on temporary/holiday staff,” notes the report. “Some employers may wish to review this area of their hiring process because the costs from employee theft and a myriad of other issues can cost them significantly more than a thorough background check,” it concludes.

The survey identified the following discrepancies:

  • County criminal check: Full-time retail workers, 74 percent vs. Temporary/Holiday, 70 percent.
  • State criminal check: 37 percent vs. 30 percent.
  • Federal criminal check: 11 percent vs. 10 percent.

Although no “one size fits all” and regulations vary by state, some threat assessment experts suggest that a general best-practice approach for screening out unwanted employees, especially those who may pose a threat to others, may include a: Seven-year criminal background check; a 10-year previous employment check; a 10-year previous residency check; a five-year credit history check; and a three-year motor vehicle records check.

Companies must develop standard protocols for conducting background searches and be clear about the standards that investigations must follow. For example, if investigators are expected to obtain character references, the policy needs to identify what types of references are sufficient in this regard.

Similarly, policies should identify clear standards for resolving questionable findings. For example, if a background check reveals an alcohol-related incident in a potential hire’s past, investigators need specific guidance on the additional inquiries they need to make and how to assess them. Because time-to-hire is an overwhelming pressure, instructions should be more explicit than “follow a minimal number of specific leads to resolve the issue.” When quickly filling job openings is the primary objective, this type of broad authority invites trouble.

Several security directors warn that while doing background checks to prevent workplace violence is critical, the quality of the background check makes a big difference. Indeed, conducting a background check could provide a false sense of security unless it digs deep enough, according to the director of police and security at Massachusetts General Hospital. “People who have [done violent acts] move to new states,” she warned.

Personal references aren’t very salient. Be more subtle. Look at gaps in employment, ask unusual questions about handling stress, investigate.” Warned another: Because applicants know that many companies only conduct a criminal conviction check in a single county, usually the county in which the employer is located, they simply cross state lines when looking for work.”

One best-practices approach is to conduct a residential history for an applicant for the past seven years and conduct criminal checks in all those counties. Screening should also include checking public and private records and using multiple tools, since relying on just one can be incomplete. And in the wake of other red flags, an employee’s history needs additional investigation to determine if there are any less obvious examples of violent behavior. Make sure your relevant team member (security, HR, outside agency) digs deeper than just court records, and investigates military records, school records, and previous work histories-and gathers information from family members or associates concerning violence or possession of and fascination with weapons.


Many companies now contract with an outside company to perform background checks. Given that specialized providers can generally do a more complete and accurate job than HR or corporate security departments, outsourcing is a smart move for many companies. It is typically a less costly option as well.

Not surprisingly, vendor offerings of instant checks have quickly gained popularity, but experts warn that it is a false solution unless you know what is making up the body of information in that instant check database. Companies should be skeptical of vendor claims of checks of a “nationwide” criminal database, although there are multijurisdiction databases. Consider them as backup or secondary tools only, and make sure to verify “hits” for accuracy.

Companies must also inquire how often a vendor updates the databases they use to check criminal records. If it is every six months, then a company may be rejecting applicants who committed a crime four years ago in favor of an applicant who committed a violent offense five months ago. Additionally, a company needs to make sure that a prospective national vendor understands the particulars of its state’s law addressing background checks and can adhere to its requirements.

The interview process can also be leveraged for security. By asking the right questions, correctly reading respondents’ answers, and employing a range of other truth-eliciting strategies, managers can support the effort of the violence prevention team by weeding out dishonest and potentially violent employees. To add this element of violence prevention, companies need to give managers the tools they need to spot potentially dishonest employees. Companies should consider providing managers with training on interview and interrogation techniques.

As a matter of security, retailers should have a process for systematically monitoring for shortcuts. HR managers and vendors sometimes try to cut corners-for example, by occasionally eschewing the in-depth checks they’re supposed to do in favor of conducting a one-county criminal background check to move things along. Companies should regularly pull hiring packages to ensure that standards are being followed and that hiring pressures aren’t causing the company to fill positions before all information is in and checks have been made.

Finally, robust quality control will include a formal process for providing and soliciting feedback on problems associated with the background screening program to senior managers, investigators, trainers, and the contract company (if applicable). And some security experts recommend sending along a name you know should be a “hit” to see if the vendor’s screening uncovers it.

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