Painful Lessons from Leland

Christine L. Peterson, CPP, ISPBackground Investigation

SBI investigates Leland’s former Asst. Town Manager

Excerpts from article: Michelle Cox was hired by the Town of Leland in January, and left after about six months on the job. During that time she was the highest ranking female employee in Leland, and was assigned to investigate claims of sexual harassment filed by Officer Sherry Lewis. About the same time, Cox’s past employment trouble came to the attention of Leland town leaders. Cox, whose maiden name was Michelle Grant, worked for the Town of Burgaw from 2001 to 2005, and resigned in the midst of a separate criminal investigation by the SBI. Cox then went to work for the Town of Pilot Mountain, NC, where she worked until being fired in 2009. Emails between Cox and the Pilot Mountain Town Manager express his frustration over her missing deadlines, mismanaging the town budget, and failing to come to work. Cox also worked for about two years as the finance officer of Snow Hill, NC. In 2010, the town board voted unanimously to terminate her contract after an audit by the State Treasurer’s Office revealed serious problems with the town’s finances. We’re told Leland town officials were unaware of Cox’s previous employment troubles when they hired her. They didn’t find out until Police Chief Tim Jayne did some research on Cox, and notified the town manager. Read the full story here.

No company or organization wants to be investigated by a state or federal agency and have their “dirty laundry” reported in the media. Stories like this one from the Town of Leland in North Carolina are possible because businesses either don’t understand the risks associated with hiring the wrong employees or they are mistaken in their complacency and “it won’t happen here” attitude. This is all the more painful when the wrong hire has been put into a position of trust by the hirer who has to explain after the fact how they failed in their duty to properly screen the applicant prior to employment.

Part of the problem lies in the misunderstanding by many that checking someone’s “records” is synonymous with conducting a background screening or a pre-employment background investigation. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Background screening is the method by which an employer verifies that the information provided by the applicant is true and that unflattering or negative behaviors are not hidden by that same applicant. In essence the employer who conducts a thorough background investigation is verifying that the applicant has the character and reputation to be a good hire for the organization. A record check normally refers to a criminal record search which is a small part of the overall investigation.

Relying on a criminal records search in this case may have led to the events that unfolded in the Town of Leland. If a criminal records search had been conducted on Ms. Cox – even a statewide search available in North Carolina but not in many other states – very little information may have been available except for traffic violations or similar offenses. Her “restitution” to the Town of Burgaw may or may not have shown up in civil filings had they been searched, but they often are missed because civil filings are not typically checked. Other background screening areas that are critical to the right hiring decision are Social Security Number verification, address history verification, reference checking, development of additional references, and previous employment references. If previous employment references had been checked in a comprehensive manner anywhere along the way, the Town of Leland may not have been put in this situation. This should be a lesson to employers that if people are critical to the organization, a background screening policy that is thorough and consistent is critical to the organization.

The sad truth is that applicants can and often lie or omit unflattering information. Just because they look trustworthy doesn’t mean that they are. Some employers mistakenly believe that someone is honest because they are “part of the community” or “they have lived here their whole life.” This is a dangerous and often a painful trap and lesson to learn.

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