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03/22/2004 Archived Entry: "Background check folly"

BACKGROUND CHECKS ARE THE LATEST SUPERSTITIOUS RITUAL to ward off fear. Background checks and drug screenings. Last week I mentioned drug and alcohol screenings for volunteers in Seabrook, NH. Today, nanopro posts this article on The Claire Files forums. Background checks in a box. No kidding. Buy the tools at Sam's Club. Pick your snoop kit up along with your cases of Coke and your supersize tubs of laundry detergent. Several times in recent years I've had friends drop out of volunteer work on principle when the organizations they'd been working with for years (4H was one) demanded they submit to criminal checks.

Everybody wants to be safe. And the 4H screenings were, of course, "for the children," to try to find pedophiles before they find victims. But in a larger sense all this checking and screening is no more useful than waving a cross at somebody you think might be a vampire. No screening will help you find the really clever bad guy who hasn't gotten caught. Drug screenings might enable you to fire any suspected (even wrongly suspected) doper. But the totally incompetent employee who confines himself to legal drug use will go on effing up your business as usual. And for every real bad guy your screenings catch, there's going to be some potential good guy who's going to become less trustworthy because all your damn screenings tell him you already believe he is untrustworthy.

As my favorite private eye, Kinsey Millhone, once said, "If people think you're bad, you might as well be bad. It's more fun than being good."

And what about the drug users -- whether recreational or habitual -- who increasingly aren't allowed to work? Or the petty criminals or long-ago felons who also are also being increasingly screened out of mainstream work?

Aren't employers (and their friends in government, of course, who do all this criminalizing and convicting) creating a vast new underground outlaw class here? Or establishing a vast new welfare class? Perhaps if we're very lucky what we'll end up creating, instead, will be a vast new class of entrepreneurs -- people who can't work for anybody else, so they go into business for themselves. But I wouldn't count on it.

Something similar goes in the volunteer field. When you start making volunteers pee in a bottle or submit to examinations of their pasts, you're not only going to drive out dopers and criminals who've been dumb enough to get caught, you're also going to push out the best of the best -- people who believe trust has an important place in all relationships.

But don't worry. Ten years from now some other ritual will have replaced background checks and drug screenings in the ceaseless, desperate effort to guarantee ourselves total safety. Maybe we'll have to have our brainwaves read every morning when we report to work.

Posted by Claire @ 08:08 AM CST

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