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What You Don’t Know CAN Hurt You

by Mark Owens, CEO of HR ProFile

The Best Employees Have Nothing to Hide

In 1999 a male employee of a small Indiana plastic molding company followed a female employee into the lady’s room and raped her.  Two years later the plastic molding company closed, crushed under the pressure of lawsuits, bad press and lost customer good will.  The victim of the crime sued the company, claiming negligent hiring and retention.  It seems that the perpetrator of the crime had a history of arrests and one conviction for violence toward women.  Had the company discovered this employee’s violent history they would not have hired him, and they might still be in business today.

Crimes such as physical assault, harassment, threats, rape and even murder are being committed every day in the American workplace.  Each year nearly 2.2 million workers become victims of crimes in the workplace.  That breaks down to over 8000 incidents per work day.  At that rate, how long will it take for an incident to take place at your business? Unfortunately, human nature dictates that we believe bad things will not happen to us.  We want to trust the people we come into contact with so we take them at their word.  The next time the local news reports a workplace shooting, remember there is a company President or CEO just like you, sitting in his office wondering how this could happen at his place of business.

Any employee can be a potential time bomb for your business.  The more employees you have the greater the risk.  And it is nearly impossible to foresee when an employee is going to act in a violent manner.  Your only option as an employer is to gather as much information on your employees and applicants as possible, before they have the opportunity to cause a problem at your business.  It is possible, for instance, to investigate an employee’s personal history and use that information to develop a snapshot of their character.  This means going well beyond having the Human Resources Manager call a couple of previous employers to verify employment dates and whether or not the applicant is eligible for rehire.  Even when an applicant “seems” like an upstanding citizen, or has been referred to your company by an existing employee, it is your obligation to thoroughly investigate their background before giving them access to your business, employees and customers.  When the police arrive at your business to investigate a violent incident between your employees, the first question they are going to ask is “Did you check into this person’s background?”

Look Beneath the Surface

You can be sure that most persons with a criminal history have learned through experience how to beat the system and get hired.  If they are turned down for a job because the potential employer discovered their criminal history, they will move on to another prospective employer who doesn’t perform background checks.  Remember, this person has nothing to lose by applying at your company; in fact they have an incentive to lie to you because they need the job.  Every time an employment screening company finds a “hit” on a subject, there is a company who intended to hire that person.  That means the subject defeated the interview system and successfully hid their criminal past from the interviewer.  Believe me, the liars are not concerned about the hard work and dedication you put into building your business.  They are not concerned about the safety and security of your family, employees and customers or becoming a long-term asset to your company.  They are concerned about collecting a paycheck, taking what they can from your business before inevitably moving on; leaving you to deal with the problems they’ve created.

For the majority of companies in the United States, a background check on job applicants consists of calling former employers, or the references that were provided by the applicant. Let’s face it: checking employment references is a time consuming, tedious process.  And gaining useful, in-depth information is a challenge for even the most seasoned HR professional.  HR Managers are often under pressure to complete the hiring process and fill vacant positions to keep up with production.  As a result many HR Managers go through the motions of checking references, securing employment dates and job title, and hope the new employee works out okay. I know this happens because I’ve been an HR Manager! If the new employee is a horrible worker, or arrives late once a week, they will have to be replaced.  But if the new employee has a history of violent behavior, drug use or alcohol abuse that you did not discover before hiring them, you have a whole new set of problems that need to be dealt with.  The best job applicants are prepared to provide you with the names and phone numbers of people who are able to act as references.  Check with your Human Resource Department to be sure all employee references are checked thoroughly.

It is easy for employers to get lulled into a feeling of false security because they “Know” their employees. In fact, a prospect recently told me that she is not interested in background checks because they “really get to know the applicant during the hiring process and haven’t had any problems yet.”  I am afraid this prospect will follow the “burglar alarm” scenario, instituting an employment-screening program after they have had an incident.  Remember, you need to avoid the liars, and the liars know how to hide their past. We recently had a client call about a criminal check we performed on one of their applicants.  The client was “shocked and surprised” that this fifty-year-old “grandmotherly type” had felony convictions for Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor and Pandering Obscenity.  Another client requested a criminal history check on a candidate for Assistant Manager of a retail outlet.  A skip trace revealed several previous addresses the applicant “forgot” to mention.  A check of this person’s previous addresses revealed convictions for Rioting, Resisting Arrest, Risk to Another, Criminal Mischief and Assault! Had this client not performed a thorough, multi-county background check, this person would be representing the company today, with access to company funds, fellow employees and customers. This client is convinced that background checks are a great idea!  Every day employment-screening companies reveal hidden secrets about the criminal history of job applicants. In fact, our records indicate that depending on the industry and location, between 9 and 35 percent of all criminal history checks return a “hit” that was not admitted to on the application.  So, if you have 10 employees, and have not performed background checks, you can conclude that at least one of your employees is hiding something.

You may be wondering how the information revealed on a background check will prevent one of your employees from committing a crime at your business.  It is not possible to predict when an individual will act violently toward another employee or a customer; you are not in the business of foreseeing the future.  What you can do is employ all means available to prevent historically violent people from becoming part, or remaining part, of your business. Criminal background checks allow you to see a pattern of behavior that shows a propensity for violence.  Rejecting applicants with a violent past can decrease the probability of a violent incident, because those individuals with violent tendencies do not get hired.  Think of a background check as an insurance policy, you are investigating job applicants before they become your problem. Remember, insight is better than hindsight.

The inevitable result of a violent incident in the workplace is a lawsuit against the company.  I will not discuss whether or not it is just to hold a company liable for its employee’s actions, because the courts have already decided that you are liable. During a lawsuit, the jury will attempt to determine the degree of liability of the employer.  Is the employer liable for putting employees at risk? What actions could the employer have taken to prevent the incident? Performing background checks will not eliminate lawsuits, but will significantly reduce your exposure for negligence. The theory is that companies who perform thorough employment screens and consistently follow specific hiring guidelines, have done all they can to disqualify potentially dangerous people.

An Ounce of Prevention…

The term background check encompasses a wide array of products and services.  Criminal history checks, reference checks, education verification, Moving Violation Reports are all components of a background check.  Each component contains many variables that determine the quality and validity of the information provided.  For instance, there are hundreds of different criminal history check products available.  Some Internet searches return information instantly, but because of the limitations of the database they access, do not report all criminal activity.  Some Internet searches report arrest records from the state prison system, but often do not show the disposition of an arrest.  There are companies that check only the current county of residence, or a group of local counties. Local county searches can be inexpensive, but do not report criminal history outside of the local area.

Each state differs in the amount and type of information they provide for Moving Violation Reports, and which agency provides this information.  Workers’ Compensation History reports also vary from state to state. And getting useful job reference information from most companies is nearly impossible!  This is truly an information heavy industry; the challenge is to gather accurate, useful information that helps you weed out the problem personalities, before they become employees.

A thorough, well thought out employment screening program is the best defense for you and your employees against hiring and retaining potentially dangerous people.  At a minimum your employment-screening program should consist of a thorough reference check of at least three previous employers, and a multi-county criminal history check.  A multi-county criminal check consists of a search of the applicant’s Social Security number to reveal all current and former counties of residence.  Even if the applicant did not list an address on the application, the Social Security trace will find it.  Once all addresses are revealed, a hand search of each local courthouse is performed to uncover any conviction history.  Your background-screening provider should have the ability to check any of the more than 4300 courthouses in the United States.  By checking the local courthouse, you can be confident that your search information is accurate and up-to-date.

Your employment-screening provider should assist you in developing and implementing your screening program.  Your provider should be an expert on the Fair Credit Reporting Act (one of many statutes that govern the employment screening industry) and provide you with the tools necessary to legally inform all applicants that you intend to check their background.  The provider should assist you with applicants who dispute the results of a criminal search and provide an 800 number for applicants to call with questions.

Before implementing your employment-screening program, determine what conviction history is acceptable, and what will disqualify a candidate.  For example, the majority of our clients immediately disqualify any applicant with a prior conviction for any violent act, regardless of the job they are applying for.  Clients who allow employees to handle cash will often disqualify an applicant with a conviction for theft, although they may hire that person to work in a position where they don’t have access to company funds.  In addition to immediately disqualifying applicants, criminal background reports may show an unattractive pattern of behavior.  For example, if a criminal history check reveals that an applicant has several minor misdemeanor convictions, or an MVR report shows multiple speeding tickets or DUI’s, you might determine that this person has difficulty following the rules and is not going to be an asset to your organization.  Most of our clients disqualify applicants for falsifying their application if they have a criminal conviction and did not list it on the application.  The key to a successful employment-screening program is consistency. If you disqualify a subject for lying on an application, you must disqualify all applicants who lie on the application.

Insure your Future

We are all aware of the awesome responsibility of owning and operating a business.  Our employees depend on the business to provide income to pay mortgages, car loans, buy groceries, etc.  Nearly all CEO’s will agree that recruiting, hiring and maintaining productive employees is the single greatest challenge of their business.  As the steward of the business, it falls on the shoulders of the CEO to make certain that our employees can conduct our business free of threat and harassment.  When an employee of your company attacks a fellow employee or customer, it is your business, your money and your future that are at risk.  More than ever it is vital that you thoroughly investigate the people you employ.  Information on an individual’s criminal history, education, work experience, workers’ compensation history and credit history is available, inexpensive to obtain and should be part of your hiring program.  If you have insurance on your facilities, vehicles and equipment, you should have insurance for your hiring process.  When you consider what is at stake, employment-screening checks simply make good business sense.

Thanks to Mark Owens, President and Founder of HR ProFile for contributing his article and his expertise to our newsletter.  When he started his business, his goal was to become a leading company dedicated exclusively to employment screening. Today, HR ProFile is among America’s Top 10 Employment Screening Firms.  For more information contact Dan Sheedy at  or by phone at 513-388-4300 or 800-969-4300.