Background Checks

CGI human with large magnifying glass looking at notebooks

Use the following background check (as well as reference check) guidelines (previously presented as Responsible Staffing) when hiring professional religious leaders and staff, and when recruiting volunteers whose work will put them in close contact with children and persons in vulnerable circumstances.

  1. Only hire, accept for service in a sensitive volunteer capacity, or credential a person who has signed and/or agreed to abide by:
    1. an authorization and release that permits the committee to request and receive information related to any prior activity involving physical harm to or sexual abuse or harassment of any person or the threat of any such conduct. This release shall hold harmless from liability any person or organization that provides information, and shall hold the institution harmless for treating any such information received in the best interests of the institution and the UUA and/or as prescribed by law. For an example of such a release, see “Applicant’s Statement and Release” in the Forms section.
    2. a statement disclosing or denying any prior convictions for any crimes, both felonies or misdemeanors (to the extent permitted by law), and pledging to notify the institution of any arrest, charge, conviction, or other relevant information, such as motor vehicle license revocation, in the future. For an example of such a statement see “Voluntary Disclosure Statement” in the Forms section.
    3. a statement disclosing or denying any prior activity involving sexual misconduct, physical harm to or sexual abuse or harassment of any person on thebasis of sex, race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, age, or disability. For an example of such a statement see “Voluntary Disclosure Statement” in the Forms section.
    4. a Fair Credit Reporting Act Disclosure. For an example of such a statement see “Applicant’s Statement and Release” in the Forms section.
    5. the applicable code of professional ethics:
  2. Where the position to be filled entails the use of a motor vehicle to drive individuals affiliated with the institution on field trips or to doctors’ offices, only hire or accept for service persons who have a valid driver’s license and proof of insurance and who pledge to notify the institution of any license suspension or revocation, conviction for moving violation, or other restriction on driving.
  3. Hire, or accept for service in a sensitive volunteer capacity, a person whose employment and educational history and, in the case of ministers and professional leaders, history of service has been verified. In addition, all references should be reviewed and contacted.
  4. Conduct telephone reference checks, which you may wish to precede with letters of inquiry, with educational institutions, previous employers, and other persons that inquire about the individual’s qualifications, performance and conduct. Where appropriate, specifically inquire about whether the reference has any concerns about the person’s potential to harm others, and whether the person has had any prior incidence of inappropriate conduct such as sexual contact with any individual the person was seeing in a professional or congregational context or any individual under age 18.​
  5. All transcripts, letters, e-mail messages, and other documents received, and all notes of conversations conducted as a part of the reference check shall be retained as part of the person’s personnel record if employed or accepted for service. This file shall be kept in a secure location, for example a locked file cabinet accessible only by the board chair and others as authorized by the Board of Trustees.
  6. No such documents received in connection with persons who are not employed or accepted for service shall be retained except as mandated by law; those not so retained shall be destroyed.
  7. In all cases, the reference and background checks are to be conducted by the committee or person responsible for making the recommendation to call, to hire, or to accept the service of the volunteer. In most cases, to avoid needless inquiry and unnecessary expense, the background check should only be conducted on finalists. Once the recommendation is made, the results of the reference and background checks are to be delivered to the the appropriate person for retention in files accessible to subsquent supervisors, or destruction.


The following agencies provide extensive information on their services on line, including the ability to order services online:

  • Trusted Employee
    7900 W. 78th St. Suite 400
    Edina, MN 55439
    (888) 808-8350

  • Oxford Document Management Company, Inc.
    655 West Highway 10
    Anoka, MN 55303-1623
    (800) 801-9114
  • Church Mutual Insurance Company’s Screen Now program, with services provided by ChoicePoint
    3000 Schuster Lane
    P.O. Box 357
    Merrill, Wisconsin 54452
    (800) 554-2642
  • CORI check—Criminal Offender Record Information (Massachusetts only)

Interpretation and Evaluation

  1. A committee in receipt of information about a person that is cause for concern should consider the information in the context of the person’s candor with the committee, previous steps taken by the person and others to address the issue, and steps taken to address whatever consequences it may have had for others and to prevent future problems. Lack of candor or honesty on an application form—e.g., a denial of any criminal convictions when a background check reveals otherwise—should usually result in rejection of the person or termination of the employee unless the individual is able to provide a very persuasive and adequate explanation for the discrepancy.
  2. When a person has a criminal conviction history, the impact of such a conviction history may vary depending on the unique circumstances presented in each case. For instance, the hiring authority must consider the nature of the crimes committed and their relationship to the job in question. The hiring authority must also evaluate whether the person could perform acceptably in spite of the conviction or whether the person can adhere to certain clear agreed upon limits or boundaries to their activities within the church community. Thus, the hiring authority should consider a person’s efforts at rehabilitation, work record, and the remoteness in time of the conviction. These factors may provide facts to support a decision to hire a person despite his/her conviction history.

When the News is Bad

There will be occasions—may they be rare!—when the results of the criminal conviction check rule the person out of consideration. Do not avoid the difficult conversation that must take place. In dealing with the negativities sensitively, even tenderly, while no less firmly, we affirm ourselves and our faith communities as both compassionate and responsible.

Living, as we must, in the world as we find it, sometimes the best we can hope for is an environment in which misbehavior is named, consequences exacted, rehabilitation encouraged, and recovery respected, and in which covenants are authentic compounds of realism, respect, and redemption.

About the Author

UUA Congregational Life Staff Group

The regional Congregational Life staff are congregations' local connection to the UUA. All of the program Congregational Life staff have expertise in most aspects of congregational life and each also has a few program areas of expertise. See the...

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