Opinion

How reliable are background checks?

RK RAGHAVAN | Updated on March 09, 2018 Published on December 27, 2017

Top priority Vetting for safety   -  SR Raghunathan

As a fallout of rising crime and acts of terror the world over, security agencies fudge reports to meet deadlines, or to cover up

The brutal murder of a US embassy official in Beirut a fortnight ago by a Uber driver once again raises serious misgivings about the efficacy of background checks of employees. Tariq, the offender, had received a clearance from the Lebanon government, which enabled him to get into the Uber workforce. Lebanon is one of the few countries in the world, such as the US and UK, where the employer has no responsibility whatsoever to vet the background of a prospective recruit. One of the state security agencies does the job, mostly in the form of a record check. It is learnt that although Tariq had a dubious past, including the charge of an attempted rape, the fact that he was never convicted by a court helped him mask his earlier misconduct.

I remember how in August 2002, a paedophile school caretaker, Ian Huntley (28), managed to get access to children in a UK school in Soham (Cambridgeshire) in spite of his involvement in burglary and a few sex offences. Huntley lured two young schoolgirls out of their homes, and murdered them. An enquiry after the gruesome incident revealed that this was the result, not of non-availability of data, but failure to share online information by the two police forces concerned.

Deteriorating situation

A worsening crime and public order scene the world over has boosted the volume of business done by antecedent vetting agencies, which claim expertise in the area and make a lot of money. (In India each check costs anywhere from ₹3,000 to ₹5,000.) It is not only conventional crime — murder and rape — that needs to be probed by private security agencies. The phenomenal burgeoning of outfits owing allegiance to the terror ideology of different hues has added a new dimension to the complexity of the process of verifying the antecedents of an applicant. The task is one that demands skill and perseverance, both to be exercised in quick time. Naturally, not every agency that offers this portfolio can meet the rigorous demand for speed and accuracy. It is not uncommon, therefore, to see some security agencies fudging reports to meet deadlines or cover up their own poor resources.

There are many constraints that reduce the quality of checks, especially by private vendors of the service. They depend on unlimited access to databases held under the control of government departments. The latter are guilty of sloth in maintaining up-to-date information. As a result, what is dished out to private agencies is of limited utility. It is the experience of many that an offender who had gone unpunished earlier, goes on to repeat his misdemeanour several times, and those who need to identify the habitual offender remain ignorant. There is also the jurisdictional problem that plagues many law enforcement forces, a malady which has eluded an effective answer. A turf war stifles prompt and generous exchange of information. This has been the main problem of many anti-terror agencies.

Hopeful signs

The recent creation of databases on criminal court decisions has offered a ray of hope in India. I have had occasion to personally check on data relating to pending and closed criminal cases where an FIR had been lodged. I was impressed with the speed of access and availability of reasonably updated information. We need to compliment the higher echelons of our judiciary for the zealous manner in which they have pursued this mission.

However, the stored data needs to go down one level to reach lower rungs of the judiciary, such as magistrate courts located in farflung centres. Once this is achieved, private firms will have a powerful tool to ensure that a person with a criminal background is kept out of their workforce. A private employer — unlike government departments — can be content with minimum information that raises suspicion on the antecedents of an applicant. He need not be bogged down by the need for absolute proof that a government department is mandated to seek. The controversies over IB reports on appointees to the judiciary are relevant here. The Intelligence Bureau, New Delhi and State Special Branches have the required bandwidth to undertake field enquiries, which alone can bring in nearly clinching facts on the character of a potential recruit. A finding sans field verification can often prove to mislead a prospective employer.

Background checks have become part and parcel of the HR wing of any large organisation. Professionally undertaken, it is a procedure that helps to keep out the really undesirable applicant with a shady past. But then, how many large organisations are prepared to shell out the costs involved?

The writer is India’s High Commissioner to Cyprus

Published on December 27, 2017
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