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On the Big Screen: Screening New and Existing Workers

The resume might say NYU graduate, but the skill set might be ABC Correspondence school. as employers step up vigilance in the hiring process, they are worried about not only candidates knocking at their doors but also the employees answering the call.

by Denise Doig

Picture this: there is an opening in your organization, and maybe you use a recruiter, send out an internal announcement, or post it on the company job board. Whatever method, you will have to shift through a slew of applicants.

You have narrowed the candidates by experience, interviewed the best of the bunch, and are ready to make a decision. However, you, like many employers, have forgotten an important step: applicant screening.

Anyone can doctor a resume to look good on paper. They can even give an Oscar-worthy performance when interviewed, but what they can’t do is outsmart the best screening provider. A resume is just the start, but there are many other areas that HR managers need to research—criminal history, identity verification, and driving records. Background screening is the best way to make sure you have all the information before making a hire.

Why should you implement a background screening policy? For starters, liability. If you hire someone who has had trouble with the law or even problems at their previous employer, it may be a good indicator of their behavior in the future.

“A prospective employer may be subject to liability to third parties for negligent hiring procedures that result proximately in loss or injury to a third party in the employer’s workplace or business or in a violation of the regulatory environment applicable to the employer’s operations,” said William Bierce, a partner at the law firm Bierce & Kenerson. “Thus, if the employer is a securities broker, failure to screen for prior securities law and criminal violations, particularly those involving dishonesty or breach of an important regulation that is a matter of public policy, would be a failure to inform itself of a matter material to the employee’s prospective job performance.”

Screening can cut risks on many fronts. Hiring the wrong candidate can be costly to a company. That self-proclaimed NYU grad applying for the opening inaccounting may not even be able to do simple multiplication, but a background investigation can yield some interesting results, such as if they even went to college.


Screening providers come in all sizes boasting a variety of experience. Some are global giants, and some operate out of home offices. Doing your research is essential, and so is asking the right questions. Is screening the provider’s specialty, what type of screening services are offered, and how about the provider’s global reach? You should also ask for references; many providers are willing to offer up a client to discuss their personal experience with implementing screening policies. To successfully assess and select a screening provider, you need to cover all bases (see sidebar). Finding the most suitable screening provider should be as detailed a process as screening a potential employee.

Workplace screening procedures can include drug testing, background criminal checks, motor vehicle checks, medical testing, Social Security
verifications, educational verification, and employment history verification. According to Michael Cool, business unit leader of Acxiom Risk Mitigation’s screening division, the most common searches requested are criminal background checks. Employers do not want to face the risk of liability that comes with hiring someone with a criminal record. Most screening providers use county or federal courts records to research an applicant. If they have been convicted of a crime, it is of public record.

Acxiom has nearly 3,000 court abstractors deployed to courts to conduct public record searches. A subsidiary of Arkansas-based Acxiom Corporation, the Cleveland, Ohio based provider said it has an average turnaround time of 48 hours. For Acxiom, county criminal searches make the most sense.

“The true answer, the accurate answer is at the court,” said Cool.

He estimated that approximately 10 percent of the criminal searches Acxiom performs return red flags. Checking court records can also yield information about employee history, if a former employer and the applicant were involved in litigation, and anything else useful to a hiring manager. Unfortunately, many companies prefer to settle a case instead of going to court. In those instances, it is not possible to find out about an applicant’s past history unless the former employer is willing to divulge work history.

Criminal background checks reveal not only information about past incidents of violence, fraud, or theft but also illegal consumption of alcohol or drug possession.

If, however, an individual has not been convicted of a crime involving narcotics, a secondary measure often used is drug testing. This can be performed using a hair, urine, saliva, or blood sample.

“Instant drug testing is predominantly a urine or saliva test. An employer can apply the test and read results on site,” said Cool. “If it’s negative they can say ‘go to work.’ If it’s positive the typical procedure is to send the sample to a lab for further testing.” “The downside is that it’s reliant on someone who may or may not be an expert in applying a test. The control and compliance may not be met.”

By conducting drug testing internally, there is an issue with objectivity. Cool said it is better to utilize third-party screeners, which offer quick turnarounds. At a collection center, results are supplied within an hour or two, you don’t have to wait an entire day, and you lessen risks of tampering by using a professional. Cool stated that 95 percent of drug tests are negative. For positive tests, the most common illegal substances found are marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamines.

While some employers typically screen only new applicants, more and more are instituting policies to screen current workers. Employees may have been involved in illegal conduct since joining the company. The industry is adopting continuous checking of employees, especially for those who have been employed for a long time.

“You can’t just check people once. There has to be continuous, perennial checking. It will be the next standard of diligence,” Cool said.

Employers must inform workers if continuous checks will be conducted because it is illegal to perform searches without the consent of the employee.

“At whatever stage of the relationship with the candidate, employers need to worry about the means and procedures for background screening,” Bierce added. “Checking financial information without the candidate’s written consent can lead to a violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act as well as other privacy rights.”

Certain professions such as healthcare, day care, elder care, or home services carry more liabilities than others. If an individual is responsible for another’s welfare or has access to people’s homes—professions such as a plumber, housekeeper, or cable technician—background checks are necessary. According to Cool, license verifications provide confirmation if an individual is in good standing or if his license has been revoked or if he has been disbarred. One key consideration is the screening of contract workers.

“If janitorial services have a key to the building, diligence is now being stretched. They [employers] have some responsibility for anyone that comes on their property,” Cool explained.

Screening of temporary or contingent workers is also important. Cool said he sees a strong up-tick in staffing companies screening employees before they are sent to a client site. Sometimes, a client may have its own standards for screening, which the staffing agency is required to meet, and the cost may be absorbed equally by the staffing firm and
the client.

Contingent worker screening is also being executed on a global level, said Terrance Corley, president of Global Screening Solutions. His company provides internal background screening services.

“Interestingly enough we’re seeing more multinational organizations require contingent/temporary staff be screened by the actual staffing firm prior to the candidate being on-boarded by the multinational. Many staffing firms have not been all together happy with this new requirement since it can be a significant additional cost as compared to the costs associated for a stateside check,” he said. “As a result of the additional costs, staffing firms that handle the sourcing of contingent workers limit the scope of checks to the bare minimum and may only opt to perform a criminal check where possible. This may be a risky proposition considering the risks associated with identity theft and the use of fake international qualifications.”

Industry insiders say cost cutting should not be a priority when considering workplace screening providers. By saving a few dollars up front, you may run the risk of losing millions further down the line.

“Most companies are not experts in background checks. They sometimes buy something that’s too good to be true—such as an instant background check. But it’s impossible to do an accurate, diligent job immediately,” said Cool.

He advised making sure the screening partner has access to the most up-to-date information and has the capability to deliver this information while staying on the right side of the law. Yes, employers must take the necessary steps to protect themselves and employees, but these same workers have rights that must be respected. Using an inexperienced provider may lead to future headaches.

This is especially true of international screening. For multinational companies, screening overseas employees is more complex than domestic screening. Accessing records such as criminal or credit can be difficult due to differences in regulations. Even delivering a screening report has legal limitations. According to Corley, some European authorities require certain criminal records to be delivered sealed directly to an employer. If a provider is unfamiliar with local laws, the screening process can get off track.

“Some considerations are the restrictions on personal information crossing borders to the U.S. Many companies have specific protocols that need to be followed, so customers should be aware that they can be in violation of both U.S. restrictions (such as the FCRA) and laws in other countries,” Cool added. “Those are importation considerations for employers.”

Other challenges associated with global screening are time zone differences, language barriers, and working lines of communication. One of Corley’s biggest issues is also one of the most straightforward—reaching a local operator to connect calls in remote areas. A lot of time is spent trying to get the right person on the phone because of out-of-date telephone listings for businesses, schools, and universities.

Some regulations can be a hindrance in international screening. “In recent months, we have found more European Union-based companies and schools citing the EU Data Protection Directive as a reason to not provide verifications. We believe this is due in part to their lack of understanding of the directives,” he explained.

A major consideration in the international market is observing new and existing regulatory requirements, along with greater compliance with the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the USA Patriot Act, Sarbanes-Oxley, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, anti-money laundering legislation, and other related transnational security regulations.

On this side of the Atlantic, Cool pointed out, “The pendulum has swung, where ignorance is no longer a defense for any size company.”

Screening, he said, is now a proactive process, compared with in the past when only some businesses conducted background searches. Regardless of size, companies can’t use the excuse of not knowing the importance of screening. According to Cool, this about face has a lot to do with a perceived exposure to liability. He added that objective scoring is another trend. As a screening provider, there are standards that must be upheld. Employers know what type of employee they wish to hire, and a screening provider uses this criteria and applies it objectively when checking out an applicant.

Many companies are large and decentralized, so if they have a company-wide screening policy, an effective provider can guarantee compliance across the board, which is a benefit to employers looking to save time and money.

By Ed Petersen, SVP at Intelius. For more information visit

1. Keep it Simple.
    • Screening companies should relieve the workload of HR professionals. If when you approach a screening company they overcomplicate the process or ask a time commitment from you that seems unreasonable, steer clear. A good staffing company will lean on technology advancements to keep the process streamlined, communicative, and easy-to-use, such as customer dashboards with an account overview, email updates of account status if necessary, or reports accessible from anywhere, even long after they’ve been run and reviewed.

2. One Size Never Fits All.
    • Seek a screening provider that takes the time to understand your needs, your industry, and your budget. Listen for them to ask questions that give them insight into the requirements unique to your business, and demand customization wherever necessary. Your provider should be able to meet your needs very specifically, making the best possible use of your budget and your valuable time.

3. There’s No Silver Bullet.
    • While instant nationwide checks are a great place to start to gather criminal background information, an address history, and other basic identifying information about a candidate, it is also important to recognize that because of a lack of standardization of records, these searches are best used in conjunction with on-premise searches, searches conducted at physical courthouses, or other sources of information. Be wary of providers exclusively pitching one solution without the other.

4. Comparison Shop.
    • Be willing to invest a week in comparing potential vendors. Give each vendor the same group of applicant information and request they run the suite of searches you have identified necessary for your business. Monitor turnaround time, responsiveness, error rate, and other variables you’ve identified as important. At the end of the week, you’ll have a much better sense of what to expect from your vendors and will be able to make a more informed decision before investing your trust, applicant pool, and screening dollars.

5. Ask Questions.    
    • Reputable companies who are knowledgeable in the screening space will leap at an opportunity to answer questions about their business. Ask questions like: “What are the sources of your information?”, “Do you have customer references I may review?”, “What is your error rate?”, “What are your turnaround times for the searches I need?”, “What makes you different from the competition?”, “How long does it take an account manager to respond to a client’s email or call?” Know what’s important to you, and ask upfront if they can meet or exceed your expectations.


Tags: Benefits, Engaged Workforce, HRO Today Forum North America, HRO Today Global, Multi-Processed HR, Screening Selection, Sourcing, Talent Acquisition

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