Verifying information on people online is cheaper and easier than it has ever been. So why is it then that so many arts organizations don't use this technology to vet new employees? The traditional method of calling a few references is relatively easy to foil and according to some studies up to 50% of all job applicants either outright lie on their applications or stretch the truth with regards to previous duties, length of employment, or reason for leaving (depending upon how you view lying). According to MSNBC as many as 80% of for profit firms use background checks on new employees today (up sharply from 30% in 1996). There were no figures available from the arts sector regarding this practice but anecdotal evidence indicates the numbers are much lower. There are innumerable firms that offer electronic background check services for around $20 per verification (word search for background or pre-employment screening returns hundreds of firms). The service usually includes verification of education and employment as well as criminal records from local, state, and federal levels. For additional money you can also get credit checks and driving records. Studies have shown that employees that are under financial distress are multiple times more likely to steal from their employers and while that may not be an eliminating factor regarding hiring an employee it may help greatly to coincidentally bring in a credit councilor for an office wide employee training.
With funding competition at an all time high it is incumbent upon not-for-profit organizations to utilize every dollar as efficiently as possible. When it comes to hiring however, some organizations set aside analytic tools and rely on an ad hoc collection of old human resource practices and intuition.
Concerns of privacy and respect deter many hiring managers from running background check, but the truth is that prospective employees expect to be checked out in this day and age. Most prospective employees have already offered more personal information (although it is usually different in content) through their Facebook account than background screenings return in their findings. Indeed some corporate employers are actually asking for access to employees Facebook pages. While most would consider this a bit extreme it does raise a point: what employees of an organization do in their personal lives sometimes has great impact on the perception of a not-for-profit in the eyes of the public.
The extent to which the arts sector vets its employees is a matter of personal or institutional value. Even though these tools are available and inexpensive doesn't necessarily mean that it would make sense to each institution for every employee. Hiring managers need to ask themselves the questions: 1) What tasks do we need to be extra safe with regards to hiring for? Examples of this criteria include employees with keys to the building or safe or employees who have contact with children or vulnerable populations. 2) What degree of background check do we need? There are very extensive checks out there and not all data is truly useful for accomplishing the goals that realistically need to be attained. 3) What are our ethics with regards to what is private data and what is fair game? Issues that can come up with regards to this question get into the territory of medical conditions, personal relationships, sexual identity, and so on.
The key to tackling these issues is to talk about them. The ensuing dialogue within an organization will help define and address questions and define procedure. Books and consultants can also help codify procedure and answer legal questions. Consult an attorney for more information on the legality of asking for information from prospective employees.