Criminal Records Checks for Prospective Staff and Volunteers

Dear Ask Rita: I keep being told we should do criminal record checks on prospective employees and even volunteers and board members. But how? Is there a simple and cheap way to do this? And do we need their permission to do it? -- Reluctant to get into the fingerprint checking business

Dear Reluctant: Background screening is a good idea for all organizations, especially those working with vulnerable populations, so we're glad you asked. As you know, there are many types of screening, such as checking criminal history or credit history, verifying credentials or licenses, reviewing motor vehicle history, or doing reference checks. This article addresses only checking on criminal history.

Whoever is suggesting criminal background checks probably also told you that criminal histories are available free on your state government website. But this is not the full story. The websites that almost all states offer (usually found through the State District Attorney site) are inmate records and, more frequently than not, only show current inmates, not former inmates. This means that most state websites will only report if a person was convicted and placed into prison. It will not report situations where a person was convicted of a felony but placed on probation. And the check will reveal only offenses that occurred within that one state.

In other words, not all states publish inmate records, and when records are available, they are only available state-by-state, frequently for current prisoners only, and typically do not include felony convictions that resulted in probation rather than prison.

So where do you go to get the best information available? Two types of criminal history record checks exist: fingerprint-based and name-based, with names being coupled with other identifiers such as date of birth, gender and Social Security number. In a 2006 report, the U.S. Attorney General acknowledged, "No single source exists that provides complete and up-to-date information about a person's criminal history."

We suggest doing a comprehensive screening that includes federal criminal, state/local criminal, and national sex offender screening. We'll discuss each type and how to find a commercial service that will do all of them for you.

FBI criminal record screening

DOJ/FBI (Department of Justice/Federal Bureau of Investigation) screening: The Interstate Identification Index (III) is the national system that provides automated criminal record information, and is based on fingerprints. Contrary to common perception, the FBI's III system is not a complete national database of all criminal history records in the United States. Many states do not submit their data to the III, and some data is excluded due to incompatible data.

And despite what an episode of CSI might lead you to believe, the process of fingerprint comparison still involves a magnifying glass and a patient human eye in addition to a computer. The FBI acknowledges that the decision to declare a match is a subjective one, based on the totality of the circumstances and the examiner's knowledge and experience.

Only law enforcement and licensed agencies have access to the III, so you can't do them yourself. If you do fingerprint checks infrequently, you can ask the prospective volunteer or staffperson to get a fingerprint check and have the results sent to you. It will probably cost about $50 and typically the nonprofit pays the expense. If you have many volunteers (who, for example, work with young people) and you'll have many fingerprint checks done each year, you may wish to make an agreement with a specific fingerprint service (for example, many UPS stores do fingerprint checks).

Fingerprinting services and the associated costs vary by locality. In some cases local police stations will do them at no charge. Ask a law enforcement agency or a nearby nonprofit for referrals.

Using a commercial background screening service

Less expensive than fingerprint-based checks, background screening companies screen based on name, date of birth, Social Security number, and other identifying information. Different companies collect and store their data differently.

A comprehensive screening will use a state database search, their own internal records, and a search of counties that have not reported (or not reported recently) to their respective states. A comprehensive search like this may reveal charges and dispositions not reported to the state or national repositories.

These checks are done online using a secure dashboard. Record check information is delivered online, almost instantly. Be wary of generic background screening sites, which may not follow the appropriate FCRA (Fair Credit Reporting Act) privacy protections.

Many insurance carriers have negotiated discounted rates on criminal history background checks for their insureds. As an example, the Nonprofits Insurance Alliance Group (a sponsor of Blue Avocado) arranges for its member-insureds to get comprehensive background checks for $10 each that include multi-state felony, misdemeanor, inmate, terrorist, and sex-offender checks, as well as identify verification, -- a service that normally costs $50 or more. Check with your broker or carrier to see what is available to your organization.

And remember that if your state or licensing agency requires fingerprint checking, one of these less expensive checks won't fulfill the requirement.


If you do criminal background checks, be sure that you have a standard that you use in deciding which positions will require them. For instance, you might require them for all staff positions that have direct contact with clients, or all exempt staff, or all volunteers. If you only do background checks on individuals who seem "suspicious," you may open yourselves to charges of discrimination.

Be sure, too, to protect the privacy and confidentiality of applicants. Make sure that any investigations or reports are locked up and secure. Keep electronic information such as email or the results of web searches secure.

There is no foolproof guarantee that any background screening will identify bad actors. Even a clean criminal history is not evidence that an individual is perfectly safe and suitable. Remember, the criminal history record check is just one element in a staff/volunteer screening process. And, although screening cannot eliminate all of the individuals who present an unacceptable risk, proper screening can reduce the likelihood that you will inadvertently select those individuals to join your organization.

And finally, a criminal record is not in itself a reason not to hire someone. For some people, what they learned through their experiences with the criminal justice system may be an important way in which they are qualified for the job. For many, a minor offense a long time ago should not make them unemployable for life. The information you obtain through a background check should inform your decision, not make it for you.

See also: Ask Rita: Facing an Immigration Registration Quandary

Ann Shanklin is the Director of Loss Control at the Nonprofits Insurance Alliance Group, where she answers questions free every day from their members on how to minimize risk. She is shown to left in an unusual position for someone trying to minimize risk. She was previously at the National Safety Council, and claims she has never, ever, filed off her own fingerprints.

Comments (26)

  • Thank you Reluctant and Rita for this information. I'm experiencing many of the same issues.
    Thanx again!!

    Oct 01, 2009
  • Although it is necessary to be vigilant in the hiring of staff and volunteers, I strongly believe that potential staff and vounteers that have criminal records can be an asset to your organization. People make mistakes and if people who were once convicted of a crime have been able to re-evaluate their life, who better a person to provide service to people who may be making their own transitions. This is not to say that all people with a criminal record should be given a second chance, particularly when it comes to sexual offences, but it is important not to exclude people with alternative pasts from participating as active members of society.

    Oct 01, 2009
  • Thank you. I work in social services and this type of attitude makes for a successful organization, one that has understanding, experience, and empathy for those we help.

    Oct 01, 2009
  • Ross,
    I agree. This is a little tricky, but certainly needs to be considered. I have a cousin who is getting out or prison and finding a job will be a real challenge for him, athough he will be an excellent employee. Knowing him, has changed my thinking on this issue.

    Dec 17, 2009
  • Anonymous

    I am a Criminal Investigator and there are a lot of programs that employers want ex cons. There are tax benefits for companies that hire employees with a felony.

    Sep 06, 2011
  • I would not think of hiring anyone without running a background check.

    Oct 01, 2009
  • We are a counseling agency, and we are required to do DOJ checks for people working with clients. However, we treat all employees the same and do fingerprint checks on everyone so there is no discrimination. We've also started using Nonprofit Insurance Alliance Group's comprehensive background checks for new employees as part of the hiring process. We then follow up with the fingerprint-checks for compliance once they are hired. We get far more info from the background checks than from the fingerprints. Mary Stroube, Terra Nova Counseling, Sacramento

    Oct 01, 2009
  • As a long time criminal justice reform activist, as well as a long time nonprofit employee who has sat on several boards, I have major concerns with this article.
    Criminal background checks for employment may be necessary in some instances. Some fields require it by law. In other cases, you may be concerned if that position requires the employee to work with children, sensitive donor information, etc.
    That said, background checks are just one more way that formerly incarcerated people continue to get discriminated. There are major campaigns underway throughout the country to ban this practice. These people have served their time, and for the most part, are simply trying to move on. Background checks make it harder for people to find work and re-enter society as productive citizens. Often times, it continues to imprison them to a lifetime of underground work, and it puts ALL OF US at risk. Having millions of formerly incarcerated people not being able to find work because of their past creates a public safety issue for the entire community, not to mention the moral and ethical concerns.
    Our nonprofit, along with others across the country, has placed formerly incarcerated people as one of many protected groups in our anti-discrimination policy. I urge others to do the same.

    Oct 01, 2009
  • Well said! Thank you for your comments.
    I think more nonprofit administrators and board members need to get out of their offices and meet the people they serve.
    Background checks can be as deceiving as good grades, high tech volunteers, sharp lawyers, and business executives when it comes to character and civic responsibility, as well their ability to cause trouble for your organization. Heart, intuition, honesty, and compassion are just a few of the other evaluation tools we can use to operate our organizations.
    Transparency and sustainability are issues we need to review constantly. I would bet that a high majority of people looking to work or to volunteer with nonprofits are not plotting subversives or thieves. There are plenty of private sector and underground jobs available for those folks, and there's always the internet.
    Your accountants, and I agree, those working with children require the most scrutiny. And, an anti-discrimination policies should be created and pondered by every board.

    Oct 01, 2009
  • This is an important and sensitive topic that touches on many issues. There should be a board and staff discussion about appropriate policies and procedures without loosing touch of your mission, or your audience guided by clear values.
    Who decides who can serve and who can't seems like murky waters that need careful consideration. We are and should be a sector of inclusion committed to raising us all up. To often there's a poverty of consciousness by well intending people establishing themselves to help others.
    There are plenty of examples of community leaders who've brought a valuable voice and a vision to our sector that would not have come without direct experience with tragedy, regret, loss, and transgressions.
    Nonprofit enterprise is all about due diligence. But, we also need to look at diversity in a holistic context, from board rooms to one-time volunteers. Who do we want to become? What do we want others to become? And, how will we get there?
    There's a lot to talk about here. Ethical, spiritual, and procedural.

    Oct 01, 2009
  • Just FYI, for a small fee, most states have a function through their State Police agencies that allows you to request a "criminal history". Normally, the subject of the inquiry will be notified of the request--which should be fine concerning prospective employment. Of course, this will require that you ask the applicant in what states they have lived in the past.
    Douglas Pearson
    Oregon DOJ - Charitable Activities Section

    Oct 01, 2009
  • I believe that criminal background checks can be very useful. I think that organizations should create and adhere to their policies regarding hiring ex-convicts. However, failure to disclose past criminal background (as opposed to the fact of former incarceration or conviction) should be grounds for dismissal.

    Oct 01, 2009
  • Conducting background checks on everybody is a good way to lose volunteers. There is no need to do a background check on people handing out flyers or stuffing conference packets. Background checks should be the exception, not the rule.

    Oct 01, 2009
  • I agree with the people who have commented about not letting past incarcerations necessarily prevent people from getting any job. But I was on a board that fired the executive director for misuse of funds and embezzlement. He pled guilty. But then he got a good job in another state. They had no idea. In my opinion they should have checked, found out, and because it was the same kind of job, they shouldn't have hired him.

    Oct 01, 2009
  • We do not do background checks in my workplace other than the state mandated 'working with children' inquiry.

    My personal experience is that people reciprocate trust. The same goes for organisational culture. Deceit and selfishness thrive in organisations where trust is low and people feel like they are under surveillance - prisons themselves are a perfect example.
    The best insurance any organisation has against the sort of risk posed by people who have been in trouble with the law - or indeed anyone at all - is clear and transparent policies and procedures and an open organisational culture premised upon unconditional positive regard for everyone in the workplace. It's a cliche, but even (non-profit) organisations can 'be the change we want to see'.

    Oct 01, 2009
  • This is a really good conversation to have, espeically in light of all kinds of personal information and past mis-deeds being used against them. Increasingly, positions are going to those with higher credit scores and those who never ever where caught... and, "caught" is the optimal word. I have worked at organizations that have hired people with past criminal records - outside of working with young children. These have given "a second chance" meaning as well as connected people formerly court involved with currently court involved to serve as positive mentors. Our culture is fast becoming one where it is one strike and you're out. Our social organizations should be at the front of resisting this.

    Oct 02, 2009
  • Canadian Perspective: In British Columbia legislation exists within the provincial government around Criminal Records Search. If you google and ask for Criminal Records Search you will see a great deal of background information. The US equivalent of a government approach to protecting vulnerable people is not known.

    Oct 02, 2009
  • Our Board decided to require criminal background checks for staff as part of our hiring process, and so far it hasn't turned up anything. It frustrates me that they did give any guidance about actually using the information however (which I've conveyed to them).
    Obviously, a sex offense or other violent crime would give me pause. But what about an underage drinking ticket from 5 years ago? (we're a college town) Or an arrest for pot 6 months ago? How does that inform my decision?
    They also mandated credit checks as a hiring requirement for the ED and Finance Manager positions, which I oppose but hasn't become relevant yet.
    I'm the ED and so won't need to worry when they go to hire for that position, but likely would not have complied if they'd required it when I accepted the job. Again, what's the criteria? and it seems personally intrusive, and pointless -- people's financial status can change (gambling debts that lead to embezzling, for example, or a family health crisis) so even a clear record now doesn't mean anything for next year...

    Oct 02, 2009
  • I agree with the readers who point out that an important question -- and one that was not addressed in the article -- is what to do if you find out that someone has a criminal record. And I agree with those who have pointed out that there are different kinds of offenses, and that having been incarcerated is not a reason to automatically exclude someone either from hiring or from volunteering.

    A recent article in Blue Avocado was "Six of Our Board Members Are in Prison." Writing that article I was reminded of my own prejudices against former inmates, and of the importance of confronting those prejudices. I'm ashamed that it did not occur to me when reading this article that some of those same assumptions should have been addressed and questioned. Thanks to the readers who brought it up.

    Oct 02, 2009
  • I ran an adult day care center for several years. I stated in all job advertisements that state and federal criminal background checks would be done. Of those I hired, I had interviewed them at least twice, checked every reference and verified employment for at least the previous 10 years. Every employee was fingerprinted prior to starting employment. Despite all of that, 25% of those I offered a job to came back as being convicted of crimes that made them inappropriate to work in our facility.
    I strongly urge anyone serious about safety to insist on fingerprinting. Bad people lie and it is far too easy to use a name and Social Security number of someone who has no criminal record to bluff your way through record reviews.

    Oct 05, 2009
  • The issue of criminal convictions and hiring is certainly a thorny issue, as evidenced by the responses to the article. We are facing an issue on our board (non-proift with domestic violence services): an employee has worked up to chief operating officer from administrative assistant, which has been beneficial to the organization. It was recently "revealed" that the person was convicted of two counts of embezzlement 6 years ago; the funds have been repaid and the individual has finished probation. The employee did disclose the conviction on the application form 3 years ago and the then-ceo and current ceo were aware of the conviction, but neither informed the board. The board has been assured the employee is not handling funds. The current ceo will soon retire and there is sure to be a discussion about promoting the chief operating officer to the position. We were told we could bond the employee, but we are not sure of our donor and funder response. Comments?

    Oct 05, 2009
  • As former ED of a non-profit, working with children, we did not do criminal background checks, but did check prior employment references closely. Our former head teacher, who worked her way up to that job from educational assistant over three years, turned out to have been incarcerated in the past. She was referred to us by a social services agency and I hired her, largely based upon her interview. She was one of the best teachers we ever had and the help and support she gave to our "unique learners" was invaluable. Would I have hired her had I known she was an "ex-con"? Probably not.

    Oct 05, 2009
  • Anonymous

    I'm somewhat disappointed in this article and discussion. Criminal background checks are no substitute for interviews, training, supervision, procedures and free-flowing communications avenues to keep clients, volunteers and staff safe. And there's no "simple and cheap way" to do all of this. Yet, the implication is that criminal background checks -- and excluding anyone with an arrest of any kind -- is what keeps everyone safe. It's not!

    Jan 08, 2010
  • Anonymous, January 9th: my reading of the discussion is very different: a wide variety of arguments has been made here, some for, some against. Even the article notes that a criminal record is not necessarily a reason not to hire someone. Many of us agree with you that criminal record checks are no substitute for a democratic and open - and open-minded - organisational culture. On a personal note, I have been knocked back on jobs because of my criminal record, and on one occasion I was made to feel like I was some kind of monster by one organisation's security manager when he interrogated me about my past. It hurts to be treated like that and I could be bitter about it, but in retrospect I guess I'm better off not working in a place that treats its (potential) staff like that (:

    Jan 10, 2010
  • Anonymous

    For anyone at a nonprofit who does background checks for their volunteers: does anyone know what the industry standard is for rechecking volunteers who volunteer with a program for an extended period of time? We are looking into commercial background check providers and are trying to decide how long the initial check should be valid. We want to keep in mind cost of rechecking while ensuring thorough and continued screening of our volunteers. Any thoughts or suggestions would be helpful!

    Dec 17, 2010
  • Many employers forget to make background checks of prospective employees in their haste. Hopefully, people will become more vigilant after reading this. Thanks for highlighting this issue.

    Peter Rowsom from Triton Canada

    Sep 27, 2016

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