Clarifacts

Background checks widening

By Yvette Armendariz, The Arizona Republic.

When Jesse Bonfeld launched a shuttle service 2 1/2 years ago, he didn’t hesitate about setting a policy to run criminal and motor vehicle checks on all prospective drivers.

“We’re entrusting them with a fairly expensive piece of equipment as well as with the safety of many people,” said Bonfeld, who with his wife, Linda, operates Timberline VIP Luxury Shuttle between Springerville and Phoenix. “You need people you can trust and rely on.”

Bonfeld, who employs three drivers, is far from alone.

Even small companies like his are turning to criminal, credit, motor vehicle and Social Security checks to make sure the people they hire don’t create unnecessary liability risks.

Ninety-six percent of businesses surveyed last year report they conduct reference and background checks on job applicants, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. A separate report on workplace violence showed 66 percent of employers were doing similar checks in 1996.

Most are checking

Larger companies conduct checks 99 percent of the time, while small companies report doing them 92 percent of the time, according to the latest report. Also, criminal checks are done to some degree by 87 percent of companies. Another growing area is credit checks, with 61 percent reporting always or occasionally doing them. Education records, military-discharge information and motor-vehicle checks also are growing.

Drug checks are not considered part of background checks. But roughly 30 percent of small companies in Arizona have drug policies in place, compared with 87 percent of companies with 500 or more workers and virtually all of the Fortune 500 companies, according to Drugs Don’t Work in Arizona!

The growth in background checks has raised debate about how much privacy employees can have and the accuracy of the reports.

It’s also resulted in a number of publications, including one from the Federal Trade Commission and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse based in San Diego, explaining the rules of consumer credit and background checks when using agencies.

“Accuracy is one of the big issues,” said Tena Friery, research director of the clearinghouse. She said calls to the group’s hotline have increased dramatically regarding concerns about privacy and inaccuracy of the information on these checks. “It’s devastating to someone who is trying to get or keep a job.”

Concerns about privacy, however, have been superseded in court by concerns about employee safety and company liability.

“It’s like the practice of preventive medicine, where the doctor wants to be overly thorough,” said employment law attorney Lawrence Rosenfeld, a shareholder at Greenberg Traurig in Phoenix.

Increasing scrutiny

The majority of growth in background checks has come in the past four years, said Cedric Dave, vice president of human resources for Phoenix-based Merchants Information Solutions Inc.

“9/11 really made us say, ‘Hmm, we better look around and see if we have the right people on board,’ ” he said, adding that checks have been growing more than 10 percent annually. At Merchants, the most popular requests are for criminal and credit checks as prices decrease because of growing databases and technology.

Companies generally will charge $25 to $300, depending on the scope of the investigation, company operators said. Most will average $60 to $80.

Kevin Klimas, president of Clarifacts Inc. in Phoenix, said drivers and money handlers are increasingly getting scrutinized, as are people who work with children and people older than 65.

“There’s a significant increase in sex-offender searches,” he said.

Wal-Mart was sued for negligence in South Carolina related to a minor’s accusation that a worker fondled her in July 2004. The lawsuit says Wal-Mart failed to check that the accused employee had two convictions for indecent exposure.

In August 2004, Wal-Mart rolled out a policy to conduct criminal checks on all qualified applicants.

Almost all of Klimas’ clients hiring at day cares, hospitality companies and health care providers are now adding the sex-offender search.

Small companies that may have resisted using checks are finding they often are required if the company wants insurance or aspires to do federal contracting work.

Bonfeld, for example, found the checks became necessary to get liability insurance.

Chris Hernandez of the Hernandez Companies in Phoenix must have all his contractors working at the airport screened for a criminal history.

Small firms not exempt

Businesses are limited in their searches in that they are supposed to get written permission for job prospects to run the checks through an agency. But they don’t have to be upfront about checks done privately by in-house staff, attorney Rosenfeld said.

Many companies will seek permission for the check during the application process, he said.

Companies, under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, are supposed to inform job prospects if they lose a job offer because of something found in that check.

Policies needed

Human-resource professionals say policies on searches need to be created, so they don’t find themselves in a lawsuit alleging selective discrimination.

For example, an employer may set a policy that all job prospects who are expected to handle money or sensitive customer information undergo a credit check. But general staff may have only a reference check.

Karyn Howard, human-resource manager for the Arizona Theatre Company, checks out job prospects primarily to uncover whether they are inflating their résumés and to get a better idea of what kind of person they might be hiring.

“There are clues out there that tell you when you need to keep digging,” she said. “You as an employer have a responsibility.”