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Screening out problem employees

September 22, 2010
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Studies by the background screening industry show that up to 10 percent of job applicants may have criminal conviction records relevant to the hiring process.

Without a screening program in place, it is a near-statistical certainty that a company is going to hire someone with a criminal record.

What sort of background tests are available?

Contrary to popular perception, there is no national criminal computer available to private employers. Criminal records are normally checked by having qualified researchers visit courthouses in counties where an applicant has lived or worked. Because there are more than 10,000 courthouses in America where records are kept, most employers outsource this task to qualified firms that specialize in pre-employment screening.

Other screening tools can include social security number traces and driving records. The social security number trace may indicate additional counties to search for criminal records and the driving record can reveal other potential problems such as drug or alcohol abuse. Some employers may wish to check civil records that may give indications relevant to workplace safety, such as allegations of violent behavior or violation of a restraining order. Federal checks of civil and criminal records are additional tools available.

Another important tool is résumé verification. Job applicants often use their résumés as a marketing tool, but the hiring company can find itself in trouble when résumés exceed the bounds of honesty. Many national screening firms estimate that up to 30 percent of résumés contain material falsehoods that pertain to previous employment, education and professional licenses.

Contacting past employers to ask about incidents of past violence may be difficult, given the reluctance of many past employers to give any information beyond dates of employment and job title. That is another reason why performing a check for past criminal acts is a critical step.

Even if a past employer will not give details about job performance when asked, just verifying the job dates and job title are crucially important. It verifies the accuracy of the applicant’s employment history and confirms where an applicant has been. An employer needs to know where an applicant has been in order to search for criminal records. The application or résumé should also be examined carefully to determine if there are any unexplained gaps in the employment history. If there is a gap, the employer or screening firm may not be searching for records in all of the appropriate courthouses.

Common employer concerns
Even with all of the advantages of a screening program, many employers still have questions and concerns about implementing background checks. Described below are seven common concerns that employers express.

1 Is screening legal?
Yes. Employers have an absolute right to conduct lawful pre-employment screening in order to hire the best-qualified candidates. A federal law called the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) balances the right of employers to know who is being hired with an applicant’s right of disclosure and privacy.

Under this law, the employer first obtains the applicant’s written consent to be screened. In the event negative information is found, the applicant must be given the opportunity to correct the record.

Employers should set up a consistent policy so similarly situated applicants are treated equally. A qualified screening company will assist an employer with legal compliance issues.

2 Does screening invade privacy?
No. Employers can find out about only those things that an applicant has done in his or her “public” life.

For example, checking court records for criminal convictions or calling past employers or schools does not invade a zone of personal privacy. Employers are looking only at information that can be seen as valid, non-discriminatory predictors of future job performance.

Employers should also take steps to maintain confidentiality within an organization, such as keeping background check reports in a separate file from the personnel files.

3 Is screening cost-effective?
Yes. A pre-employment screening will typically cost less than the expense of a new employee on his or her first day on the job. That’s pocket change compared to the damage one bad hire or one incident of workplace violence can cause. In addition, employers typically only screen an applicant if a decision has been made to extend an offer, so not all applicants are screened.

It is ironic that some firms will spend hours shopping for a computer bargain and at the same time try to save money by not adequately checking out a job applicant, which represents an enormous investment.

The bottom line is that problem employees usually cause employee problems, so any money spent in an effort to avoid problems in the first place is money well spent.

4 Does screening discourage good applicants?
No. Employers who engage in screening do not find that good applicants are deterred.

Good job applicants have a desire to work with qualified and safe coworkers in a profitable environment. A good candidate understands that background screening is a sound business practice that helps a firm’s bottom line and is not an invasion of privacy or an intrusion.

5 Does screening delay hiring?
No. Background screening is normally performed in just 48 to 72 hours. Keep in mind that most of the information needed is not stored in databases, but must be obtained by going to courthouses or calling up past employers or schools. Occasionally there can be delays, such as previous employers who will not return calls, schools that are closed for vacation or a court clerk who needs to retrieve a record from storage.

Furthermore, an organization that is careful in its hiring practices should find a lower rate of “hits” during background checks.

There are a number of steps a firm should take to ensure safe hiring well before a name is submitted to a background company. These techniques include making it clear your firm does background checks in order to weed out bad applicants, knowing the “red flags” to look for in an application and asking questions in interviews that will filter out problem candidates.

6 Is screening difficult to implement?
Not at all. For an overburdened HR, security or risk-management department already handling numerous tasks, outsourcing background screening can be done very quickly and effectively. In a short period of time, a qualified preemployment screening firm can set up the entire program and provide all the necessary forms.

Many firms have secured Internet-based systems that speed up the flow of information and allow an employer to track the progress of each applicant in real time.

7 How do you select a service provider?
First and foremost, an employer should look for a professional partner, not just an information vendor who is selling data at the lowest price. An employer should apply the same criteria that it would use in selecting any other provider of criticalprofessional services.

For example, if an employer were choosing a law firm for legal representation, it would not select the cheapest — it would clearly want to know the selected firm is competent, experienced and knowledgeable, as well as reputable and reasonably priced.

The same criteria should also apply to critical HR services. A screening firm should have an understanding of the legal implications of background checks, particularly the federal FCRA and applicable state laws. An employer should only utilize firms that have committed to professional standards, as evidenced by membership in the professional organization for background screening firms, the National Association of Professional Background Screeners (www.NAPBS.com).

Both employers and applicants need to accept that pre-employment screening is an absolute necessity in today’s business world. Pre-employment screening is a key element in any program designed to prevent workplace violence.


Lester S. Rosen is an attorney at law and president of Employment Screening Resources, a national background screening company (www.ESRcheck.com). He is a consultant, writer and frequent presenter on safe hiring,pre-employment screening and legal compliance.

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