The problem with checklists


Checklists are a handy tool, especially in investigations. I use them a lot. They help me remember all the steps that need to be covered, and they’re great for getting back on track after going off script to follow an unexpected lead. But checklists need to be used with caution. 

As this news story highlights, checklists have their shortcomings. The article talks about an Uber driver who passed the usual background screening. He  also drove for Lyft for just over a year, ending in September 2018, so it appears that he also passed their background check. The only problem is, at the time of these screenings, he was an accused war criminal. And, recently, he “…was found liable for torture in his native Somalia in a U.S. court…, concluding a 15-year-long civil suit.”

According to the CEO of the background screening company, “This is really an edge case. this individual does not have a criminal history in the U.S. or is on any international sanctions list.” He also pointed out that the driver had been screened by TSA and other government agencies, “so there’s really no criminal data we can report on that individual.” And he’s right. This individual passed every check on every list.

So what went wrong? How did we get from following the process and the rules to more bad press and even more processes? The problem with checklists is that we get so caught up in our lists and our processes, and we forget two important things:

  1. We forget about “What Else?” – Yes, he passed the criminal check and didn’t show up on any sanctions lists. But what about what hasn’t wound up in criminal courts or been finalized in the form of a sanction? In this situation, there was an ongoing civil case in U.S. court, which likely would have been found during a civil court search, and records usually reveal the allegations. Which leads me to the second thing we forget…
  2. We forget about “Why?” – He passed the usual criminal checks, yet there’s something on the civil side. Granted, the case wasn’t decided at the time, but it was ongoing, and it raises a big red flag and should remind us about why we’re screening potential drivers in the first place. Corporate speak aside, it boils down to just one question: Would you trust this person to drive – possibly late at night – your daughter, son, or parent to their intended destination? Something to think about during your background screening.

To be fair, it’s standard practice in employment, regulatory, and tenant checks to skip the civil court records, and, in some situations, federal and state laws limit how far back you can search. I’ve even seen some due diligence investigations, for which these regulations don’t apply, cover just criminal cases. That’s why we look at news, social media, civil filings, tax liens, and more for other signs of trouble. Taking in the big picture, instead of just following the small steps. 

Whether it’s your next business partner or the person who will be transporting loved ones – it pays to remember that checklists, by definition, cover the just bare minimum. Take a step or two beyond the basics and remember What Else and, most of all, remember your Why.



  • Troy Fleming /

    This is a great reminder! “Every case is different so the legal investigator must approach each with an open mind and not limit themselves (checklists) during the investigation process to not only determining what happened but determining why it happened.” When I starting to feel comfortable with the “process” I realize I’m not thinking outside the box which is a disaster. As always thanks Marcy for reminding us all to continue to, “think and never get comfortable.”

  • Mary Ellen Bates /

    This is a great reminder that checklists are the starting point, not the final answer.

  • Very relevant to me right now! I have not been willing to undertake due diligence because I’m worried I’ll miss something and someone will suffer. This is exactly what I’ve been thinking about – what else and why does it matter? Thank you so much!

    • Marcy Phelps /

      Thank you, Susan. Always good to hear that something I write is useful. Let me know if you ever have any questions about due diligence investigations.

  • This is so good, Marcy! I’m doing some opposition research right now and it reminds me of plenty of instances where candidates are vetted, but are exposed after the fact, because no one asked these questions. Thank you for the reminder.

  • Perfect advice. It’s a reminder to sit back and think outside the box before doing the research. It’s faster and easy to do the check list. But there can always, just maybe be something else out there that’s important. Taking that extra time can payoff. Thanks.

    • Marcy Phelps /

      Thank you, Carol. Checklists have their purposes, but, as you point out, we need to take time to check what’s not on the list.

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