Data Protection consultants have warned third sector organisations about the growing trend for extensive screening checks on workers. Following on the heels of safeguarding scandals in the charity sector, data protection consultants are seeing a rush by charities to ramp up the levels of screening carried out for both employees and volunteers.
Of particular concern is the trend for charities to approach previous employers and ask for “off the record” comments about the person who has applied for employment or a voluntary position. Legally, this practice is risky, and potentially unfair to workers. This is because off the record comments are largely a matter of personal opinion rather than facts which can be backed up with evidence.
There is a further growing trend for charities to outsource vetting on employees to external agencies. This is done to try to make the overall process more professional and standardise the process across positions. However, data protection experts warn that the type of checking carried out can often be very intrusive. Also, there is still the risk that someone whose vetting comes back squeaky clean could still pose a safeguarding risk in the future. Data protection consultants argue that more emphasis should be put on the charity’s internal checks, balances and whistle-blowing processes rather than focusing solely on recruitment.
There has been a growing trend in all areas of business to give what is known as a “tombstone reference”. These references just confirm the job title of the person concerned, and the dates between which they were employed. For many however in the charity service this very short reference is perceived negatively. Many employers interpret the tombstone reference as “we’d like to tell you lots of negative things about this person but can’t legally”. That’s really not the case. It’s far more likely that the company has a blanket policy of making no comments at all about a former employee’s conduct, personality or honesty – whether positive or negative.
Disclosure and Barring Checks
In the wake of scandals enveloping several major charities, and in recognition of the fact that many vulnerable adults and children under the age of 18 volunteer in charity shops, many high street charities have introduced basic disclosure checks for managers and paid staff in charity shops.
In 2018, the chief executive of Barnardo’s, which has around 700 shops across the UK, stated that the charity wished to run enhanced DBS checks on staff and volunteers. However, chief executives and individual charities do not have the power to make those decisions. Only people engaged in regulated activity directly with children or vulnerable adults can apply for enhanced disclosures. Charity shop workers do not fall into this category. Enhanced disclosures for this group would require a change in the law. Legally, charity shops don’t even have to run basic disclosure checks on paid members of staff. All that is required by the Charity Commission is proof that the charity has considered safeguarding, which may or may not include running basic disclosure checking.