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The Navy Yard Massacre: How Employment Screening Failed

The Navy Yard Massacre: How Employment Screening Failed

On Sept. 16, military information technology subcontractor Aaron Alexis took a shotgun into the Washington Navy Yard and killed 12 people.  workplace issues

Alexis' employer, The Experts, hired Alexis after conducting an allegedly complete background investigation. Somehow their investigation missed three gun-related arrests. In 2008, Alexis was accused of shooting out the tires of a man's truck in what he described as an anger-fueled blackout. In 2010, Alexis fired a gun through the ceiling of his apartment at an upstairs neighbor; he claimed the gun fired accidentally as he was cleaning it.

In addition to other charges of disorderly conduct, the Navy had discharged Alexis for a pattern of misconduct that included insubordination and unauthorized absences. In August, just a month before Alexis "blew," he sought assistance from two Veterans Administration hospitals to deal with hallucinations, which included hearing voices.

Would you have wanted Alexis working at your work site?

How exactly did employment screening fail and what do employers need to realize to keep their workers safe?

Who's on your work site?

While many companies screen their own employees, few conduct due diligence on their contractors' employee screening processes. Thus, when the Navy Yard hired the IT subcontractor it "bought" the subcontractors' employees and their problems. Subcontractor employees often have the same work site access and even wear the same company badges as regular employees -- though the company's human resources personnel and managers don't directly screen or manage subcontractor personnel.

You can't afford cheap and easy

Many employers seek out the cheapest, fastest background check firms; these firms may perform cursory screens that provide only the illusion of security. For example, the background checking firm turned up Alexis' traffic violations but not his more serious gun-related arrests. They noted that Alexis received an honorable discharge but not any of the factors leading to his discharge. Officials then issued Alexis a federal security clearance, giving him full and frightening access. 

If you smell smoke, report it

As in so many workplace violence debriefs, after the tragedy individuals in Alexis' company reported earlier suspicious conduct that worried them. These concerns were never raised to a level where they could be dealt with.

What employers can do

When contracting for services, companies can insist that contractors' employees undergo thorough background screening. Employers can review their subcontractors' background screening processes.

Employers using a third-party background screener can screen the screeners. Sample questions include:

  • "How long have you been in business?"
  • "Are you facing any active liability claims or have you ever been held liable for your business practices?"
  • "Have you ever been sanctioned by a state or federal regulatory agency?"
  • "Who's used you -- that we can call for a detailed reference?"

Employers that use a staffing firm need to realize they turn over control but not liability to the firm. Employers should require that a staffing firm use a competent background screening company. If the staffing firm does in-house screening, employers can randomly audit the results; they may find that some of these firms only go through the motions.

A single employment screening failure cost 12 Navy Yard workers their lives. Don't let that happen in your firm.


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Lynne Curry, Ph.D., SPHR and owner of the Alaska-based management consulting firm, The Growth Company Inc. consults with companies and individuals to create real solutions to real workplace challenges. Their services include HR On-call (a-la-carte HR), investigations, mediation, management/employee training, executive coaching, 360/employee reviews and organizational strategy services. You can reach Lynne @, via her workplace 911/411 blog, or @lynnecurry10 on twitter.

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