Employee screening: How little is enough?

Not that anybody’s on a hiring jag these days, but new positions do, on occasion, need to be filled. Certainly, lots of people want jobs and it’s possible that some of them will turn out to be less than loyal company people. Some may even be dangerous. That’s the kind of thing you’d like to know before you put them on the payroll. But how do you find out?

Many companies offer personnel screening services, such as the positive-spin Acxiom Information Security Services, the more alarmist National Search & Discovery, and the straightforward Back-groundchecks.com. The last, for example, which serves such clientele as Enterprise Rent-A-Car and Pacifica Health Care, offers several searches on potential employees, including a three-level criminal search, social security number search, motor vehicle report, worker’s compensation claim search, education verification and employment verification. Other services offer to check terrorist lists, search eviction records and do drug screening.

Whether companies outsource the task or do their own employee screening, background checking is on the rise, and technology has made it cheaper than ever. One do-it-yourself Web search can report on aircraft ownership, Dun & Bradstreet business reports and many things between, at prices from US$1.50 to $123. Where do you stop? If you do too much, you risk alienating candidates or giving them cause to sue. If you don’t do enough, you risk the expense of replacing the person who’s botched the job, committed a crime, threatened corporate security or otherwise given you an unpleasant surprise. Plus the cost of the surprise.

Margaret McCausland, a partner at Blank Rome LLP in Philadelphia, specializes in labor and employment law. “My advice to employers is to do the checks,” she says. “If you’ve got a gray area situation, pick up the phone and call your employment lawyer. Spend 15 minutes talking it over and maybe save yourself thousands of dollars.” Sometimes, says McCausland, “it can be a pick-your-lawsuit situation.”

While McCausland says she finds employers often don’t even do the ordinary reference checks, some organizations are going at it hard. The Department of Energy, for example, is persisting in screening employees with polygraph testing, despite a National Academy of Sciences report last fall stating that the test is insufficiently accurate “to justify the federal government’s reliance on this method of employee screening.”

How little background checking is enough and how much is going overboard?

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