Mental health issues not a crime (Editor's Notes)

Police shouldn't hand over mental health information in background checks

Employers have a lot of valuable information to weigh when evaluating candidates. After all, the cost of a bad hire is enormous and the benefit of finding the perfect fit is equally large.

That’s why it’s so tempting to cast the widest net possible during background checks, something many organizations do during the hiring process. Checking references, verifying education credentials and social media research are boilerplate for many organizations. (Even credit checks have gained traction, particularly if the person is going to be dealing with money.)

Any type of background check comes with issues and risks. For example, a Facebook search could reveal all sorts of potentially discriminatory information such as race, family status, religion and disability. 

Criminal checks can also reveal more information than necessary, such as whether or not an individual has had a history of mental health issues. That’s because many background checks provide not only information about the candidate’s criminal history — if any — but also non-criminal mental health encounters with police. That includes suicide attempts or other psychological issues where someone called 911 for help.

In an era where we’re trumpeting being more open about mental health, and removing the stigma attached to seeking help, it is indefensible for police to be handing that information over to employers.

The “Not Myself Today” campaign is a perfect example of the movement to end the stigma — we’ve written about the program in the past and my employer participates. A core part of the program is buttons and stickers that reveal how you’re feeling — such as grumpy, stressed or agitated. 

So it sends a very weird message when we say, on the one hand, that it’s OK to admit you’re feeling that way, but then, on the other hand, to shun potential employees because they had a mental health incident that involved police interaction — one that led to absolutely no criminal charges. 

But things are changing. Many police forces across the country have stopped releasing that information, a move the Toronto Police Service recently agreed to do. 

It’s a change we applaud. Employers need the best information they can get to make a hiring decision, and it doesn’t need to be clouded with a red flag that doesn’t really mean anything.

Last year, the Ontario Association of Police Chiefs recognized this in putting out new guidelines for police reference checks. It stated the disclosure of “police contact and non-conviction records” was serving as a barrier to employment, among other things.
That’s because employers “who are receiving and making decisions based on non-conviction entries frequently do not understand what a police contact or non-conviction record is, and have little or no guidance as to how this information should factor into their decision-making process. 

“The result is that many organizations adopt the most risk-averse position, automatically disqualifying a wide range of individuals solely on the basis of these records.”

In an era with so much liability placed at the employer’s door, who can blame a hiring manager for choosing a candidate with a completely clean check over one who attempted suicide? 

That’s why the decision needs to be taken out of their hands. Police shouldn’t pass over this information and, if they do, HR should redact it before the hiring manager has a chance to see it.

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