Do you have any felons on your payroll? Are you sure?
By Russ Banham
When two staffing divisions within inVentiv Clinical Solutions wanted a better way to screen the backgrounds of the high-level statisticians, data programmers, and clinical researchers whom they temporarily place in the biopharmaceutical industry, they turned to Corporate Screening Services, a specialized provider that digs deep and digs wide.
The biopharmaceutical industry runs the gamut—from large companies such as Pfizer and Novartis, to smaller boutique biotech firms. But all typically engage in clinical trials to establish the efficacy of prescription drugs and meet the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval standards. During this multi-phase process, temporary staffers such as the aforementioned statisticians and clinical researchers are hired. Once the processes conclude, so do these employments.
Background screening of the prospective hires typically involves criminal history checking and drug testing to ferret out behaviors that could prove problematical and risky from a legal standpoint. The scientific rigor and delicacy of the work performed by the staffers, and the consumer implications of the drugs under trial, demand recruitment of individuals with squeaky-clean backgrounds—hence the need for the most thorough criminal and drug screening.
Drug Testing by Drug Companies
MedFocus and Smith Hanley are two divisions within inVentiv that provide temporary staffing services to the biopharma sector. The companies, each acquired by inVentiv in the past decade, provide roughly identical services marketed through different brands in different geographies. Together, they represent a significant force in the specialty recruitment outsourcing market. MedFocus, for instance, places more than 400 contractors a year, while Smith Hanley onboards 500 to 600 staffers annually. Both were looking for more cost-effective, less cumbersome, much quicker, and—here is where the rubber meets the road—more penetrating background screening services.
“We had worked with a competing provider for seven-plus years, and, when they became part of a larger company, the turnaround times for us to get the screening results took a turn for the worse,” says Nancy Post, operations manager at Chicago-based MedFocus LLC. “We needed an organization that would be dedicated to our business, understand its needs completely, and be there in a flash if we had a question or problem. We can’t risk one of the people we place turning out to have had a criminal record that fell through the cracks.”
Similar drawbacks were hampering Smith Hanley LLC. “We were desperately trying to decrease the amount of time it took to complete the background checks and drug screens,” says Bonnie Knowles, managing director in the new San Francisco office of the Houston-based Smith Hanley. “We’re placing niche people in the pharmaceutical industry, people earning six figures, like regional monitors who go out to the clinical trial sites to gather data for the trial results. The background screening was paperwork-intensive, and we’d often have problems with legibility, deciphering the handwritten responses—not the most efficient or secure methodology. We’d spend much additional time ensuring the accuracy of the screening data.”
No company, of course, wants to have a situation on its hands like the one that affected Ohio State University in October 2009. Following a shooting rampage by a school custodian, Nathaniel Brown, it was learned that the school’s background screening program had failed to unearth Brown’s criminal past, which he had lied about on his job application. Two people died in the incident, including Brown, from a self-inflicted gunshot.
According to The Columbus Dispatch, Brown simply answered “No” on the application as to whether he’d been convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor in the past. A review by the newspaper of Ohio prison records indicated that he had served five years in jail for receiving stolen property. “OSU’s background check on Brown didn’t uncover his conviction,” The Dispatch stated.
Greg Dubecky, president of Corporate Screening Services, Inc., in Cleveland, says the lesson of OSU is that not all background screening programs are the same. “There are programs that are cheap and quick and lead to a false sense of security, and then there are best practices programs,” Dubecky explains. “This is such a critical part of the hiring process. A mistake can adversely impact the assets of the organization and its reputation, with significant business repercussions down the line. You don’t want to take the chance of missing something.”
More than Surface Spadework
That “missing something” could be a DUI conviction from a decade ago or a crime committed in a foreign country. Corporate Screening will dig as deeply into a job applicant’s past as the client wants. While other firms may tout similar services, the devil is in the details, Dubecky warns. “The perfect example is what everyone calls a ‘national criminal records search’,” he says. “People erroneously assume that ‘national’ means all-inclusive—it doesn’t. Not if it takes a couple hours. There are thousands of law enforcement offices—federal, state, county, and municipal courts, prosecuting attorney databases, and all sorts of other record bearers, with very little reciprocity among them.”
Even the world’s premier law enforcement agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which manages the nation’s criminal data repository, “has less than half the number of all criminal histories recorded,” Dubecky maintains. “If the FBI doesn’t have the ability to conduct an all-inclusive criminal history, why would the private sector think it has that ability?”
He cites another insidious failing of basic criminal background screening—the difficulty assessing the veracity of information presented by job applicants. “It is not uncommon for someone with a criminal background to alter the date of his or her birth by a single day to throw off the screening process,” he says. “If you fill out ‘June 5’ when your actual birth date is June 6, an inexpensive criminal records search may be fooled. We do what we call here a ‘fuzzy’ search that leverages technology to sift through records by using approximate dates of birth and other identifying information.”
In its marketing materials, Corporate Screening cites the various criminal records and other data sources it will check as part of its standard background screening—10 pages in all. The list includes the records contained by all types of U.S. courts; national and individual state criminal history records; financial, bankruptcy and tax lien records; and fingerprint criminal records. Education, military service, and employment information are verified, as are professional licenses and all references. The firm administers drug testing through a network of laboratories, and offers a range of industry-specific screening services. It will even conduct similar searches of foreign criminal data repositories.
Corporate Screening is eager to prove that its methodologies are better than the prevailing norms. In this regard, it offers a unique feature to prospective clients called SPA, for Screening Program Assessment, which assesses the current background screening program in place and measures it against industry standards, best practices, and legal compliance. Deficiencies are unearthed and solutions for improvement presented.
For MedFocus and Smith Hanley, the process of evaluating job applicants begins with the candidate, who fills out an online background form. The form must be completed within 20 minutes or the system will time-out and all information will be lost. This feature compels the applicant to have all background information, including a full seven-year history of employment, in hand and in advance. The 20 minutes starts when a person stops typing or navigating the page.
Once the client receives and reviews the application, it then simply selects the option of ordering a background check of the individual at the level of screening it wants. Not all clients, for example, will want a cross-planet criminal records search. Corporate Screening undertakes the background investigation according to these criteria, and emails the client that it has initiated the screening process. Once the investigation is completed, the client receives another confirmation email and instructions on how to view the background reports, which are visible via its secure Web site.
One important feature is that the reports are updated in real time. “I can go and check Corporate Screening’s website to see where they are in the background search process,” says Erin Welty MedFocus employee relations specialist. “If I have a question about a specific job applicant, there is a link on the site that will connect me to the particular Corporate Screening analyst processing the person’s background. Nothing is sitting there waiting to be processed.”
Knowles says the return on investment from the new system has been substantial. “In the past, we would collect paper job applications that were filled out with a pen, and then overnight mail them to the background screening provider, in order to get the results back quickly,” she explains. “It cost us close to $30 each time we did this, and when added up with other servicing costs was as much as $75 per candidate. It was so cumbersome and costly, and then we had issues over legibility.”
She calculates that the savings alone from no longer having to overnight mail the applications have been $111,480 in the past three years. “This does not include the time our staff is saving in having to interpret handwriting, while having to keep up with paperwork and filing,” she adds. “It’s also in line with our push toward ‘green’ office processes by reducing the use of paper. The job applicant and screening process is completely paperless now.”
Best of all, there is much less of a chance that critical data regarding an applicant’s criminal past will fall through the cracks. “We’re the last line of defense,” says Post. “Outsourcing the background checking to Corporate Screening helps ensure the most thorough probing of an applicant’s criminal history, within federal and state data privacy and disclosure legal boundaries.”
She adds, “They’re in the business of figuring out more ways to figure out things. If an applicant filed for bankruptcy, they don’t leave it at that. They keep digging to find out why.”
Decriminalizing Your Workforce
Do you have any felons on your payroll? Are you sure?