Background Checks: How Far Should You Go?

July 22, 2010
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Every year around this time, I’m reminded of an article I wrote some 8 years ago about the senseless and tragic murder of a young woman at the hands of a so-called carpet cleaner, and how a simple business practice might have helped stop it from happening. I think the article is worth revisiting, so read on…

Our industry is made up of many trustworthy, hard working individuals who are dedicated to protecting the health and safety, as well as, valuable furnishings of many people. As such, we develop special relationships with our customers. We have access to the personal areas of their homes and offices. They trust us so much that they literally open their homes or offices to us so that we may perform cleaning or restoration services for them with little or no supervision. And many times, we employers must depend on others to help us provide those services.

“Carpet Cleaner Murders Woman” was the headline that described the tragic death of Kerry Spooner-Dean, a young pediatrician living in California. A wife and highly productive member of her community with a bright future ahead of her, in May 1998, she responded to a “$5.99-per-room” carpet-cleaning ad…

The murderer was caught and eventually found guilty. The jury assessed 72 percent responsibility for the crime to the company that subcontracted the killer, a parolee with eight convictions for violent felonies. The verdict was $11.22 million. Needless to say, this bait-and-switch company is gone forever.

Unfortunately, so is Kerry Spooner-Dean.

The 9-11 tragedy reinforced the need for employee screening in large companies, such as janitorial businesses, that have regular access to buildings. Smaller “Mom-and-Pop” firms, however, are more reluctant to spend resources on background checks.

That said, it may be even more important for smaller businesses to perform checks, since employees often have multiple responsibilities in these companies. Even a minor employee infraction can hurt your firm’s reputation or bank account. And risking an unsuspecting customer’s welfare or life is just plain gross negligence.

When you tally up the expense and time it takes to recruit, interview, hire and train an employee, it doesn’t make sense to cut corners when verifying background details.

If you have a small business and are hiring someone you know, such as a close relative or your neighbor’s son, someone you’ve known intimately for years, this may not be necessary. Similarly, in a small community where everyone knows everybody else and employment turnover is low, it may not be quite as crucial. But to be legal, you must be consistent.

Jeff Bishop, who served as an expert witness in the Kerry Spooner-Dean trial, suggests mandatory background checks in the following circumstances:
  1. Larger companies with multiple employees and high turnover.
  2. Companies in large metro areas where it’s virtually impossible to get to know prospects intimately.
  3. Companies whose business practices and marketing efforts put them in dozens of homes daily.

The only way to way to know for sure is to do the checks. At a minimum, you should check information on an application form and verify basic information on a resume. To check references effectively, you will have to do much more than casually call the people on a list that the candidate supplies. Believe me, the effort is worth it. No other step in the hiring process is more important.

Check references early in the evaluation process. More than resumes or candidate interviews, reference checks will tell you how a candidate has performed in the past. And this, more than anything else, predicts how he or she will perform in the future.

The most informative references come from people who are, or have been professionally involved with the candidates’ day-to-day work. Past supervisors, peers and subordinates are all good sources if they are willing to cooperate and can do so without violating labor laws.

Keep in mind that some references should be discounted or ignored. For example, character references from close friends and relatives tend to be more glowing than informative. Also, be wary of references from personnel professionals or “head hunters.” They may not be very familiar with the candidate’s day-to-day performance, and may be hesitant to reveal anything, no matter how true, which might lead to possible litigation.

To improve your reference verification results, you must first decide who to contact. You’re not limited just to the names a candidate gives you. You often can find excellent reference sources through your industry contacts, professional associations, and any other network that applies (civic clubs, Chamber of Commerce, Better Business Bureau). By doing research, you may reach sources that are more accurate and objective. People with no vested interest in your candidate’s future tend to be more open.

Before talking to any reference source, inform the candidate of your intentions. To protect yourself and your company, you must have written permission from the potential employee. There are very strict guidelines that require the permission be on a separate sheet of paper and in a specific font when using a third party for investigation.

Often, a call or two is all it takes to verify education, awards, certifications, and the like. If the candidate’s claims don’t agree with the facts, you may want to save yourself further research time. Finally, you must evaluate each reference immediately, so that you can quickly reach the right conclusion. If you have checked your references effectively, you’ll know enough to make a well-informed decision.

The key to protecting your company is doing your best to verify information provided by candidates. Be sure to keep written documentation of your efforts, including whoever you talk to, the dates and the questions you ask, while making every reasonable effort to check out employee statements.

Employers are many times “caught between a rock and a hard place” when it comes to investigating a potential employee. If they do too little, they can be sued. If they do too much, they may be violating federal and state law by making prohibited inquiries. To avoid appearing discriminatory, treat every candidate equally. Don’t, for example, investigate random candidates or applicants who make you suspicious. Investigate them all in preciously the same manner.

Keep in mind, too, that state and federal laws police the kinds of information employers can use when making employment decisions. Most states follow federal guidelines, but there are variations, with California being the most complicated and New York a close second. Check your state’s requirements before proceeding.

The Fair Credit Reporting Act of 1971 (plus significant amendments in the late 1990s), the Privacy Act of 1974, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 oversee the majority of federal protections for worker privacy and rights. Most regulations kick in only when you hire a third party to do the investigation.

If you verify information yourself, many laws do not apply. Even so, research the issues or talk to an employment lawyer or a veteran human resources consultant before beginning. You want to set up clear company policies about screening select positions that require background checks.

If you do decide to hire an outside firm, most third-party background checks now are completed within three to five days through expert searches of computerized public records and personal databases. When questionable findings are discovered, the investigator may need to follow up just as you would, by phone and personal interviews.

Previously, third-party checks ran as much as $200. However, as technology has improved, prices have become very affordable. Today, it costs roughly $50 for a professional pre-employment screening. Reports may range from simply verifying social security numbers to full investigations, much of it from public records, including:
  • Education records
  • Court records of criminal convictions
  • Credit reports or bankruptcy filings
  • Driving records and vehicle registrations
  • Medical records and workers’ compensation
  • Military service records
  • Property ownership
  • State licensing records
  • Character references or interviews with neighbors
The task of finding, hiring and retaining good, honest employees is very important for your business, and the well being and safety of your customers. Employing the wrong people can, and will take a toll on your company and your reputation. If you don’t check references well, you will inevitably hire the wrong candidate or possibly let some of your best candidates slip by.

Both mistakes can be very costly. Invest the time and, more importantly, the money, to perform background checks on your prospective employees. It may save your reputation or even your business.

The tragic death of Kerry Spooner-Dean should remind us all of our responsibilities as employers, not just to our companies, but to all consumers as well.

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