Originally created 02/02/05

Checks into job applicants' pasts widen



While reviewing a job application a few years ago, Anne Winter noticed a mistake.

The applicant's resume said he had been a state employee, but a background check revealed he was a state inmate.

"It was creative phrasing," said Ms. Winter, the president of the Augusta-area chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management. "It looked like a legitimate job ... I don't know if it was technically a fib."

Still, someone who has served time isn't the most attractive candidate. Had it not been for the background check, Ms. Winter wouldn't have known the difference.

The San Diego-based Privacy Rights Clearinghouse reports that 30 percent to 40 percent of all applications and rsums include false or inflated facts. For that reason, reference checks and previous employment verifications have long been the standard for checking out potential hires.

But many employers are increasingly going beyond the standard by looking into applicants' criminal, motor vehicle and credit histories, too.

"You want to prevent problems that you might have if you make bad hiring decisions, for example, workplace violence, theft and embezzlement," said Wendy Bliss, a human resource consultant and author of Legal, Effective References: How to Give and Get Them.

According to a study by the national Society for Human Resource Management, 80 percent of employers in 2003 conducted criminal background checks, compared with only 51 percent in 1996.

Checks into criminal, driving and credit histories are increasing because former employers have become hesitant to reveal information about past employees, other than basic information such as title and pay rate, for fear of being sued for defamation, Ms. Bliss said.

And employers are more concerned about being sued for negligent hiring practices, said Jim Allen, a Augusta employment attorney.

"The courts have decided if you hire someone who has a record of being dangerous and you didn't find that record, you can be sued for putting your customers at risk," Mr. Allen said.

For example, a delivery company whose employee killed or injured someone because of drinking on the job would be less capable of defending itself from a lawsuit if that employee had a history of DUI violations.

Background checks are an important part of the hiring process at the Richmond County Sheriff's Office, which requires applicants to undergo polygraph tests.

"We're trying to find the man or woman suitable for protecting and serving the people," Chief Deputy Sid Hatfield said during a recent meeting of the local human resource chapter. "If you're not careful in the application process ... you're going to hire someone who's detrimental to your company,"

Both Ms. Bliss and Mr. Allen said employers need to be most diligent when hiring people who will be driving, handling finances or working closely with children and elderly or debilitated adults.

"You don't want to be placing someone in a position of caring for those people without knowing they have a tendency toward violence," Ms. Bliss said.

Mr. Allen also advises that job applicants without perfect backgrounds be up front about their past indiscretions rather than letting the employer find out.

"If you lie, and they find out, you're not going to get hired," he said.

Reach James Gallagher at (706) 823-3227 or james.gallagher@augustachronicle.com.

Background Check Tips

For employers:

 •  Get complete information: The more information you obtain, the easier and more thorough the check will be.

 •  Include multiple addresses: Many people work in counties different from where they live.

 •  Get names of past supervisors and co-workers: Human resource personnel often will share only basic information such as employment dates or titles. Co-workers and supervisors will often give more candid information.

 •  Credit checks: Obtain a credit report designed for employment use. Using a standard credit report violates the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

For employees:

 •  Employers must get consent to conduct most background checks.

 •  If employers ask about previous convictions, be honest but provide an explanation of the incident.

 •  Don't lie about past employment. Checking employment records is so common that many companies have it automated and will quickly spot discrepancies.

 •  Don't lie about your educational background. A background check will verify the degrees you earned.

 •  If you are concerned, conduct a check on yourself.

Sources: www.easybackgrounds.com; Liz Pulliam Weston, columnist at moneycentral.msn.com