Deep Background

Background Checking for Sexual Harassment: How a Background Check Missed a Man’s “Very Long History Abusing Women”

It’s pointless to check the criminal record of a job applicant only in the immediate area where the prospective employee lives; because of people’s mobility nowadays, employers need to search for arrests and convictions nationwide.  That’s one lesson that emerges in a federal appeals court case decided in April 2019. 

The court case, which focuses on a door-to-door salesman of vacuum cleaners who worked off and on for decades for the same group of affiliated companies, has other lessons, as well.  It could be cited as a perfect illustration of what the #MeToo movement has been asserting about many American businesses.  In this case, the man’s employers turned a blind eye to what the 2019 court ruling called the salesman’s “very long history abusing women.”  The companies also repeatedly hired and promoted the salesman even though they knew he had lied to them over and over about his criminal record.  

Under the Radar

 The vacuum-cleaner salesman had worked off and on for the same group of close-knit companies, including the vacuum cleaner manufacturer and a factory distributor, going back to the 1970s.  The man was considered one of their most successful salesmen, according to a 2017 lower court decision in the case. 

When he first applied to be a distributor trainee, the manufacturer did only a regional check of his criminal record, and not a nationwide one, according to the April 2019 appeals court ruling. The company’s check found he had lied about his past arrests, yet it hired him anyway.   Had the company done a national background sweep, “it would have discovered his criminal record was much more substantial,” the 2019 decision said.  

A 2017 appeals court decision, citing information in related court cases, said that in the years after that he served one year in jail for a domestic battery in 2000, as well as 10 years for forcible rape stemming from three separate attacks on his seventh wife between 1999 and 2000.

Each time he got out of jail, he returned to his salesman job.  At one point, the man sought a promotion, and he was found to have misled the company again, about his numerous arrests.  Even so, he got the job he sought, and he was rehired on other occasions. 

“While [the man] was awaiting trial in the forcible rape case, [the company] learned that he had defrauded elderly customers and it terminated his factory distributorship,” said the 2019 appeals court ruling.  “But when [the man] got out of prison in February 2012, he actively sought and obtained employment with [the company] and began selling their vacuums again.”

Lawsuits Filed

In 2013 three women who worked for the companies filed a lawsuit against the firms.  The women asserted that during door-to-door sales trips with the man, he repeatedly harassed and assaulted each of them, and in one case raped one of the women, the 2017 lower-court ruling said. The women alleged that the companies were negligent in assigning them to work with the man. The manufacturer settled with the women, paying millions of dollars, court documents show.

A column in the HR-related publication called the case “a cautionary tale on why we background-check employees.”  The lawyer who wrote the column, Jon Hyman of the Cleveland-based Meyers, Roman, Friedberg & Lewis law firm, identified the mystery at the heart of the story: “Why rehire someone after they are released from prison for rape, especially with all of this back story?  This fact is the most head-scratching of them all.”   

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