Could a background check help prevent a crime from taking place in the future? That’s the question at the heart of a new lawsuit heading to court in Missouri.

The situation is like the movie ‘Minority Report’ for the screening industry (the Tom Cruise vehicle where police officers of the future can arrest murderers before they commit their crimes). Its outcome could have major implications for the way employers conduct background checks and could create a push for more employers to use nationally-accredited agencies like Active Screening to perform their screening procedures.

Facts of the Case

Here’s what we know about the case according to this newspaper article:

  • A Missouri woman was sexually assaulted by a cable repairman in her apartment in December 2012, two days after he performed a service call there.
  • Her attacker, James Helderle, worked for cable company Charter Communications, who subcontracts work to Broadband Infrastructure Connection and Communications Unlimited Contracting Services Inc.
  • During the service call, Helderle asked the woman whether she had a boyfriend and what she liked to do for fun. He later told his supervisor he thought the woman was “cute” and found out that “her boyfriend was in the Air Force.”
  • He later tracked down her cell phone using company records and texted her.
  • The woman told her boss about her uneasiness with the employee’s behavior and her boss called Charter Communications and complained on her behalf.
  • Helderle was fired following the complaint.
  • The next day he broke through her apartment door and attacked her.
  • She is suing Helderle and the three companies associated with employing/hiring him, saying the crime could’ve been prevented if they had performed better background checks.

Examining the Evidence

The root of the civil suit is that Helderle’s employers – which, her attorneys say are all three companies even though two of them deny he was their employee – didn’t do enough to check his background before hiring him. The woman’s attorneys claim that none of the companies verified Helderle’s previous employment history, contacted his personal references and conducted too narrow a background check for a 21-year-old.

If they had, her attorneys say, they would’ve found out that Helderle had allegedly:

  • Fabricated his job duties with multiple prior employers
  • Suffered mental and physical abuse from relatives and foster families
  • Posted emotionally charged comments on his social media sites like Facebook – the woman’s attorneys say Helderle “suffered from extreme anger issues; that he was not afraid to die and even welcomed death; and that he sought physical fights with multiple people.”

A spokeswoman for the cable company said in a statement that all employees are required to pass drug and alcohol tests in addition to criminal and financial background checks. She reiterated that the company requires contractors to maintain the same standards. Helderle was only considered a trainee at the time he met the woman. It’s not known if trainees are considered employees who must undergo the same types of tests and background checks outlined by the company spokeswoman.

The screening policies of other telecommunications companies in Missouri are being scrutinized in the wake of this case. AT&T provided the St. Louis Post-Dispatch a look into its process. An AT&T spokeswoman told the newspaper that the company conducts background checks on all new hires and requires vendors to prove the same thing. “Our background checks are extensive and include things like criminal checks, sex offender registry checks and confirming employment history,” she said in an email to the newspaper.


One aspect of this case that is sure to be a battleground is the use of social media to vet candidates. Social media by itself should never be used as a primary screening tool. Why? Most social media profiles include information that could be considered discriminatory if you use it in a hiring decision. It can, however, be a useful tool in a comprehensive screening policy – IF you follow these tips:

  • Outsource Your Screening Needs
  • Develop a Written Hiring Policy
  • Make Sure EVERYONE Knows the Policy and Follows It
  • Get Written Permission
  • If You Choose to Screen Social Media, You Need to Treat Everyone Equally
  • Don’t Make an Offer then Rescind Based on a Social Media Check

Read this post for more tips.

It will also be interesting to see what comes out of the allegation that none of Helderle’s personal references were vetted especially because it’s widely known that a huge portion of people lie on their resumes. Expect Charter’s hiring, screening and on-boarding processes to be picked apart in court. Was everyone treated the same? Were personal references always, sometimes, occasionally or never called? If there are discrepancies in Charter’s systems, the woman’s attorneys will do their best to expose them.

Finally, can a candidate’s personal history affect his likelihood of committing a crime? And should that information be used as a screening tool? That’s a doozy of a question and incorporates so much more than what we write about here. But we’ll be watching the outcome of this case closely because it will, undoubtedly, have a massive ripple effect.

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