by Josh Bryant
Churches have a heightened sensitivity to background checks right now in light of a report by the Houston Chronicle that found 700 cases of sexual misconduct over the last 20 years in Southern Baptist Churches. But do you know what to do when you get a positive result? The answer may seem to be as simple as telling the person they cannot volunteer or serve on staff, but because of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, it isn't that simple. Here are five things you need to know about a positive background check.
1. Make sure you had their permission before you do anything. Several laws require written consent of the person before you run a background check on them. Failure to have that permission could get your church into trouble with the Federal Trade Commission, the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, the Department of Justice, and any number of state institutions, not to mention a law suit for invasion of privacy. If you didn't have their permission, go get it and run the background check again.
2. Don't say no...yet. Before you take an "adverse action" against a volunteer or staff member by not allowing them to serve, you must give them a notice that includes a copy of the background check report you received. You must also include a document put out by the CFPB called "A Summary of Your Rights Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act" and give them at least five days to explain or contest the content of the report. To be safe, give them ten.
3. Now you can say no. If they don't contest the information or explain it to your church's satisfaction, now you can tell them no. But you have to do it in a certain way too. You have to tell them that they were rejected because of the information in the report, give them the name, address and phone number of the company that ran the report, inform them that the company who ran the report did not make the decision to deny them the opportunity to serve, and inform them of their right to dispute the accuracy or completeness of the report and get a free copy of the report from the company that ran it within 60 days. But...
4. Make sure you say no uniformly. Especially in the context of employment, failure to uniformly say no is discriminatory and can get your church in trouble. For example, if you tell one applicant no because they had a DWI on their record and another yes even though they also had a DWI on their record, you'd better have a very good reason for treating the two differently or you could be in trouble with the EEOC. Volunteers really don't have much of a recourse, but it does look bad. So write down what disqualifies a person from what roles in the church so that you plan in advance how to handle certain findings on a background check. And...
5. Make sure you maintain confidentiality. You need to lock the report up for a year and then either shred or burn it. If you store it digitally (which I don't recommend), you need to make sure you've got adequate data security in place and that you have the proper IT infrastructure to completely erase the data from your systems after a year. Moving it to the recycle bin or trash can on your computer is insufficient; the FCRA mandates that electronic copies cannot be reconstructed. That usually requires special software or hardware to make happen.
Here at Church General Counsel, we're starting a focus over the next several weeks about dealing with sexual harassment in the church as the #MeToo movement spreads like wildfire through our society refusing to pass over the church. How the church works to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace is crucial, and we'll have resources and further discussion on this topic over the next few weeks. But the second aspect of a good sexual harassment strategy is how to deal with it if a claim is made.
Churches must respond to claims of sexual harassment with a thorough investigation. However, there are many great reasons why churches should not conduct them internally.
1. Churches are not naturally qualified to conduct an investigation appropriately. I don't know of any seminary that teaches a class on fact finding investigative techniques. I know plenty of law schools that do, however. Attorneys are trained in how to build a case, and before the case can be built on the law it must be built on the facts. As such, attorneys must know how to conduct good witness interviews, collect documents and other evidence, and otherwise conduct a solid investigation.
2. Internal investigations can lead to hurt feelings and further conflict. Someone is going to disagree with your conclusion if you do the investigation by yourself. This can cause church members to be upset with you, and you didn't do anything but due diligence in investigating a sexual harassment claim as you should. It can cause more strife on staff. However, if you have an outside attorney conduct the investigation, it brings a formality to the process that relieves you of personally carrying the weight of the decision without an independent recommendation.
3. The content of the investigation can gain extra protections. This is the great benefit of attorney-client confidentiality and privilege. Attorney-client confidentiality just means that an attorney must keep information gained from the attorney-client relationship strictly confidential in a vast majority of circumstances. As such, the things that church staff, members, and others say to the attorney are usually protected. Attorney-client privilege goes further to prohibit a court from requiring an attorney to disclose that information. This is a great protection that you won't get with any other investigator.
4. The results of the investigation can also gain extra protections. This means that whatever the attorney discovers could be protected from anyone else getting access to it. This is because a doctrine known as attorney work-product. It is an exception to the discovery rules - rules that provide for the provision of evidence from one party in litigation to the other in hopes of settling a case or allowing the other party to prepare for trial on equal ground. Except in rare situations, the work of an attorney cannot be "discovered" by an opposing party such that not only communications, but the result of an investigation are protected from disclosure.
At Church General Counsel, we highly recommend our clients utilize our services to conduct investigations in sexual harassment and other personnel matters. Here are some ways we can help:
Church General Counsel Managing Attorney Josh Bryant, J.D., M.Div., authors most of the posts in this section. From time to time, he will post articles from others in the field of church growth, administration, and operations.