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But we did a Background Check!

When Massachusetts State Police announced recently that they had fired Kate Corbett when it was discovered that the analyst who worked at a state drug lab did not have the degree in chemistry that she had claimed, some people seemed surprised that this fact was not discovered when she was hired and a background check was conducted.  News reports indicated that Ms. Corbett actually earned a degree in sociology from Merrimack College.  She apparently had taken some courses in chemistry but she did not earn a degree in that discipline.  No one has publicly challenged her competency and unlike another highly publicized case concerning the very same lab, Corbett is not accused of falsifying any records. 

So if she was competent in her job and isn’t accused of any wrongdoing, no harm, no foul, right?  Not so fast.  In that other highly publicized case, another analyst, Annie Dookhan was recently sentenced to prison for falsifying lab results.  In an apparent effort to make herself appear more productive, she testified that substances seized in criminal cases were illegal narcotics without actually performing the tests.   Thousands of convictions were brought into question because of her and in fact many people were released from prison when their convictions were overturned.

In this latest case, if Corbett testified that she had a degree in chemistry in criminal trials, it could open the door to legal challenges and more cases could be overturned as a result.  So it really does matter when people are hired based on false claims made on job applications and in interviews.  This case demonstrates well the importance of background checks that are designed to verify the information that is appropriate to the job being filled.

So why didn’t the background check discover this alleged lie?  The answer is quite simply, because no one checked with the school.  When someone says, “But we did a background check,” that does not necessarily mean that criminal records, driving records, credit history, professional licenses, academic credentials and previous employment history have all been verified.  There just isn’t one central place to go where all pertinent information can be confirmed.  That doesn’t mean that it’s a difficult task to accomplish, just that you need to decide what’s important and go to the appropriate source to find what you’re looking for.  It wouldn’t have taken much effort to contact the college and verify that the applicant had in fact earned a degree and in what subject.

There is no single definition for a background check.  A quality screening company will work with an employer to help determine the information that’s pertinent to the position for which the applicant is being screened and make that part of the screening package. Criminal records can be an important element of any screening package but they aren’t the only thing for which employers should be looking.  If an applicant lies to you about having a degree, it may not mean that drug dealers will be let out of prison.  It could however, mean that the applicant may not have the expertise they need to perform the essential functions of the job. It could mean embarrassment to your company if the falsification is discovered publically. Or maybe it just means that you hired someone with a character flaw that will manifest itself in other areas of the job over time. 

The next time you hear someone say “But we did a background check,” you should think, “yea, but what did they check?”  Conducting a background check is like doing a puzzle.  You need all the pieces in place before it’s complete. 

David C. Sawyer, CPP, guest blogger here at

David is the President of Safer Places, Inc. who provide full service pre-employment background screening and drug testing solutions to a wide array of employers across the country.  Safer Places assists their clients in creating safer places by helping them implement effective, FCRA compliant screening programs for employment applicants, housing applicants and volunteers.




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