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What our national governor-general saga taught us about background screening

April 15, 2021
By Colomba Vani

Julie Payette resigned from her post as governor general in January. (DEYAN/Adobe Stock)

Since the Julie Payette saga began unravelling in 2020, many HR communities have been shocked that the toxic work environment fostered by the former governor general and her secretary Assunta Di Lorenzo escaped scrutiny for so long. 

It was disheartening to see how negligent the federal government had been in hiring at that high level without conducting any form of background check. 

In our workplaces, we are consistently held to a high degree of checks and balances by our governments, both provincial and federal. And yet, it would seem, they were unable to uphold the same degree of accountability in their own workplace. 

Frankly, it was appalling that Payette’s starstruck employers failed to unearth her poor employment track record — a legacy of abusive leadership — that a few simple pre-employment phone calls could have revealed. 


Strengthening violence preventions

On Jan. 1, in a bid to rectify their own negligent hiring, the federal government quickly added amendments to the Canada Labour Code within the workplace harassment and violence prevention regulations to “expand the existing prevention of violence framework.” 

“Known as Bill C-65, these amendments will strengthen provisions in the Canada Labour Code by putting in place one comprehensive approach that takes all forms of harassment and violence into consideration,” the official announcement reads. “This will help departments to better prevent, respond to, and provide support to those affected by harassment and violence in the federal public service.”

What the bill does is mandate employers to conduct third-party searches into a complaint of workplace harassment, and to follow the third-party recommendations once the investigation is completed. The bill has also put in place a penalty system that allows employers to be fined up to $250,000 if they fail to comply with the new occupational health and safety or labour regulations.

New federal rules on violence, harassment in effect: Are you compliant?

COVID-19 complexities

Like most workplace practices upended by the pandemic, the renewed focus on background screening has pushed many an employer into a corner. 

The way to manage this effectively is by further scrutiny. Once an optional practice, background screening is rapidly becoming the new normal for many organizations. We are going to see it become part of the onboarding process, to be continued post-employment by HR departments. 

Yet while the awareness has been built, many companies lack the know-how involved in thorough background screenings. They don’t know how to drive privacy laws. They don’t know how to distinguish between good qualifications and less-than-complete ones. 

COVID-19 has piled on further complexities to the process of background screenings by way of court closures, shutdowns of academic institutions, and an overburdened medical system. As such, delays in acquiring verification of applicants’ criminal, academic, and drug histories may lead employers to bypass the screening process altogether. 

Add to it the ongoing war for top talent — it hasn’t been easy for hiring managers to judge whether they need to loosen or tighten their screening protocols. 

Governor general resigns after scathing report on toxic work culture

Strategies for screening staff

Faced with these odds, organizations can incorporate a few best practices that can help mitigate challenges when conducting background checks.

Get social media reliant: We are all part of a multigenerational workforce that is heavily influenced by what’s on social media. 

In addition to the official police checks, credit checks, education and health checks, employers will need to start scrutinizing applicants’ social media history and activity to determine a fit for their organization. 

If the candidate is applying for a government position, are they spewing anti-government sentiments in their social media posts? Are they inciting or condoning racist acts that are socially and morally inappropriate? Are they toting hate and/or violence on their Facebook and Twitter feeds? 

On the flip side, close social media scans can make applicants’ nervous that their freedom of speech and privacy are being impinged upon. Employers will have to find a balance. And the balance is going to be in a policy. 

To establish a policy, they must not only drive it through the federal and provincial regulations, but they also have to get it scrutinized through the legal department. 

A robust hiring policy that encapsulates background checks and onboarding procedures will mitigate pre- and post-employment issues.  

Use common sense, and approach background screenings holistically: HR departments can no longer just be HR departments. They have to be a litigator. They have to act as police reformers. They have to have balance and they have to do it all with common sense. 

Case in point, if an individual’s background screening reveals a decade-old criminal activity and they haven’t since had any run-ins with the law, how does one employer hire this person versus another employer? It boils down to how inclusive the organizational culture is and the job type the candidate is applying for. 

Scores have lost their jobs during COVID-19. Increasingly, background checks will now show that applicants have not been able to hold job positions for more than a few months. That’s to be expected. Countless businesses have been terminated and hiring freezes are the order of the day. 

It therefore behooves employers to consider a candidate’s entire background to make a sound judgment on eligibility. 

Towards that end, ask in-depth, open-ended, behavioural questions to clarify gaps in resumés. This is not new. It should never be a yes/no answer. It’s important for hirers to get to know their employees or the people they’re trying to hire. A cookie-cutter approach won’t work.

Conduct third-party background checks: Depending on the size of an organization and its HR department — and budget-permitting — engaging a third-party provider with stellar credentials to conduct background checks helps to protect organizational reputations. It’s a fair and equitable way for organizations to navigate a tricky legal landscape. 

However, candidates must be made aware of the company’s policy to conduct third-party screenings. Hirers must divulge the name of the screening company, how they will conduct their background search, and whether the candidate will be contacted by them. Candidates’ must be given the right to consent or not to a third-party screening. 

Ensure a culture of inclusivity when performing background checks:  Making sure individuals feel safe during a screening process is critical now, more than ever. 

It must be made clear to candidates that the screening is carried out in a just manner, and they have every right to screen the company, as well. This makes a contentious process a win-win. 

Hirers need to ensure that candidates can have open and honest discussions with them during the process and that individuals understand why there is a need to conduct background checks. It goes hand in hand with an inclusive corporate culture and positive brand experience. 

If all else fails, pick up the phone and have a direct conversation with colleges, universities, and references cited by the applicant. It’s an old one, but a keeper. 

There is no doubt that HR is feeling the full brunt of a tough job market. Employers need to embrace the shifting practices and what HR needs to deliver for the business at this pivotal point for the industry. 

The creation of Bill C-65, albeit in bad precedence, helps organizations to add an extra layer of scrutiny to alleviate unwanted controversy.

Colomba Vani is the director of human resources at Pactiv Canada, a manufacturer and distributor of food packaging and products in Toronto. 


This Work Leadership commentary was published in the Spring 2021 issue of Talent Canada.

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