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Scrutiny from a hirer authority: preemployment screening is crucial if companies want to minimize the potential for employee problems down the road.

Comprehensive preemployment screening is crucial if a company is to weed out dishonest job applicants. Recognizing the importance of this step of the hiring process, many U.K. companies have implemented extensive screening policies. The following looks at what some of these companies are doing with regard to front-line staff, contractors, and key positions; it also examines the types of information sources available to U.K. companies and some of the special considerations involved in collecting the data.

Front-line staff. Pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has a global employee screening policy. Bill Trundley, head of global security at GSK, believes mat thorough screening of employees is central to creating a strong security culture within a company. "It sends out the message to everybody straight away that the company takes security very seriously, he says.

HSBC, one of the world's biggest banks, also considers screening essential. It screens all of its own staff in-house, says Chris Smith, head of regional security for Europe at HSBC. (Some positions get an additional level of screening from outside consultants, as discussed later.) The company's human resources department runs a check on employees, scanning public records such as the Electoral Roll (a register for voters) to confirm a job applicant's personal details and contacting credit reference agencies to check up on the applicant's financial record.

Rather than handle this work in-house, GSK contracts with Alternative Investigations Management (AIM), an agency for preemployment screening. And since May, the process has been computerized and placed on the network. Forms completed by the hiring manager and job candidate are sent to GSK's screening agency via a secure network. "The electronic system speeds things up and allows you to keep track of the screening process more easily," says GSK's Trundley.

The agency runs a wide range of record checks to verify a job applicant's identity and qualifications and to determine his or her credit history and criminal record. Management reviews this information before making any hiring decision.

In addition, since the company does research using animals and has been the target of animal rights groups, GSK does a search of Web sites and media databases to see whether a job applicant is an extremist looking to infiltrate the company.

"I think it is a very good idea for companies to run these checks," says Simon Imbert, director at Capital Eye, a screening agency that vets staff for U.K corporations. If a job applicant has appeared in the press for the wrong reasons, employers have a right to know about it, says Imbert. But such media research to learn more about a prospective employee might soon be outlawed in the U.K. by the Office of the Information Commissioner, which implements data protection laws in Britain. (see "If It's Personal, It's Protected," April 2003, for more on data protection laws in the U.K and throughout Europe.)

All information collected about each GSK applicant is stored on the company's electronic vetting system. One advantage of having the information stored electronically is that the process is accessible to all hiring managers throughout GSK who have access to the system. "By having a multisite function, it stops people leaving one site under a cloud and then joining another part of the company," he says.

Contractors. The attention to preemployment screening extends to GSK's contractors too. All contractors, from the guarding finn through to the cleaning company, have to confirm that they are screening their staff to the same standard as GSK, which audits contractors' screening of staff GSK runs periodic spot checks, selecting a small group of contracted staff at random. "We will carry out our own preemployment check on these staff or ask to see an audit," says Trundley. "All contractors will say they screen their staff to the required standard, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating, which is why it is necessary to have audits."

Auditing of contractors' screening of staff is essential, agrees HSBC's Smith. According to Smith, contractors are particularly vulnerable to falsification of information on job applications because their vetting of staff tends to be less thorough and candidates are more likely to think they can gel away with it. "Contractors by definition have a higher turnover," he explains, "and because it costs a lot of money to carry out a proper vet, they tend not to be so rigorous."

HSBC makes clear in service level agreements (SLAs) what is expected of its security service contractors when screening new staff. "We have a contractual agreement to audit the process, and we validate that process by carrying out spot checks on contract staff," says Smith.

The bank's SLAs require that contractors vet staff to the British Standard tot employee screening, known as BS7858. The standard requires that employers run a full check on a job applicant's employment and education history going back to years and that they obtain two written character references. Applicants are also required to declare details of any criminal or driving offenses.

HSBC has extended its SLAs on preemployment screening to include subcontractors, to make it plain to contractors that every worker on site must be screened. "'You can have workers, especially in construction, who are sub-contracted to the main contractor; they are twice removed from the company, and you might have no idea who they are," says Smith. "If they are not included in the SLA, you are leaving yourself open to abuse."

Key positions. SSR Personnel Services, the U.K.'s largest specialist recruitment agency for security staff, urges all clients to run extensive screening tests on anyone applying for positions of great responsibility, even if the applicant is already well known to the hiring manager. Peter French, managing director at SSR, says, "I know of companies that insist that their contractors vet lowly paid staff to a high standard but bring in a new finance director on nothing more than a handshake."

The Boots Company, which owns Britain's biggest pharmacy chain, is one business that varies the level of screening depending on the position being filled. "Staff" employed in key parts of manufacturing, such as people involved in the control of drugs, undergo extra screening," says Stu Davidson, site services manager at Boots. The company runs a standard ten-year employment history check on average employees but checks much further back in the employment history of staff hired for key positions, who are also asked to obtain a copy of their criminal record From the police to show to Boots.

HSBC raises the screening standard if the position applied for involves access to high-security areas or holds considerable financial responsibility. In those cases, the company outsources screening of applicants to an agency that has the resources to carry out a more in-depth screen than that done in-house for the average employee. The more extensive screening might involve checking back as far as 20 years on an applicant's employment history.

GSK takes a similar approach to HSBC when hiring staff into positions of great responsibility. In those cases, the checks go back further than the usual ten years when looking into job applicants' employment history. In partnership with its contract screening agency, AIM, the company also conducts additional interviews with candidates for these more senior positions.

Collecting information. U.K. employers must begin the preemployment screening process by ensuring that letters containing job offers are accompanied by a declaration form in which the applicant consents to various screening checks. The applicant should be asked to sign this form.

The background checker will then want to verify basic facts before checking histories or talking with references. The British Standard for employee screening requires that the employer look at an applicant's original birth certificate and marriage certificate (where relevant), or military service documents or valid full passport to confirm the applicant's identity anti legal name.

French notes that the easiest way of proving a job applicant's residential address in the U.K has been to check the Electoral Roll, which contains an individual's personal details, such as name and address. Being able to run this basic check, however, is no longer guaranteed. From this year on, all U.K. residents have the right to opt out of being included in the Electoral Roll; one in five residents have already opted out. French recommends that if a job applicant is not listed in the Electoral Roll, the prospective employer should request copies of utility and telephone bills to confirm the applicant's place of residence.

Another common check that can still be run on U.K. job applicants is the credit reference check. Companies simply have to write to a credit reference agency, which will then send details of the applicant's financial record. The record highlights any county court judgments (CCJs) against the applicant. (CCJs are served on anyone who fails to repay debts.)

How meaningful this information is will depend on the specific circumstances. "Employer's must decide whether a CCJ would affect somebody's application," says Jane Hering of Security International, a private investigation consultancy. "If they had 20 CCJs totaling 45,000 [pounds sterling] (US$71,000), all within the past 18 months, and they were applying for a job as financial controller, we would suggest that it probably would affect their application."

Criminal records. The regulations concerning criminal record availability in the U.K. vary somewhat depending on the type of business and the position. For example, City University in central London may carry out in-depth criminal records checks on any of its staff employed to work with children. "In areas such as optometry, where our staff provide eye tests to people under 18, we can run police checks on these employees," says Corrine Howie, human resources project manager at City University.

Any organization employing people to work with minors can request the applicant's Enhanced Criminal Record Certificate (ECRC) from the U.K.'s new Criminal Records Bureau (CRB), launched in 2001 to speed up criminal record checks. The ECRC contains details of "spent" and "unspent" convictions. (Under the U.K.'s Rehabilitation of Offenders Act of 1974, any prison, or youth custody, sentence of six months or less is considered "spent" after seven years and does not appear on a basic criminal record. Prison sentences of between six months and 30 months arc spent after ten years, while prison sentences or more than 30 months are never spent.)

The ECRC also contains additional information, held locally by the police, including convictions for minor offenses and any relevant intelligence information that has been gathered

Companies screening average employees, however, will only be able to obtain a Basic Criminal Record Certificate (BCRC) from the CRB, which does not contain spent convictions. This level of check should be available from the CRB by the end of this year; for now, employers that want to run basic criminal record checks on job applicants have to ask applicants to obtain a copy of their criminal record from their local police station.

The extent to which criminal records are available about candidates for security officer positions is about to change due to impending government regulation of the U.K. private security industry. Under the new rule, contract security guards will soon have to obtain licenses to work. To get the license, guards will have to obtain a Standard Criminal Record Certificate (SCRC) from the CRB, which reveals unspent as well as spent convictions but does not contain the extra police intelligence information available through the CRB's enhanced check.

The Security Industry Authority (SIA), which will implement these regulations, has calculated that one in five people trying to enter the security industry will fail the vetting requirements. But Molly Meacher, chair of the SIA, emphasizes that job applicants with criminal records will not automatically be barred from becoming security guards. "The plan is that everybody must have two years clear of minor criminal offenses before being allowed into the industry," says Meacher. "For past of offenses, we will use our discretion."

Many employers of security officers have welcomed the government's flexibility over hiring of people with a criminal record. One of those employers is Nick van der Bijl, security manager at Southmeads NHS Trust Hospital in Bristol. He says that banning all applicants with a criminal past would seriously harm any company's ability to recruit enough security officers. "I would not have a problem with employing someone with a criminal record provided I know about the offense," says van der Bijl. "The key thing is to know that the person has been rehabilitated and to be convinced that they have become socially responsible."

SSR Personnel's French agrees that excluding everybody with a criminal record From the guarding industry because of the new licensing laws would he unrealistic and would force employers to fire staff who have been working for them without problems for years

The benefit of security officer licensing, says French, will be that hirers of contract security staff will no longer be in the dark about job applicants' criminal histories and will be able to make an informed decision on whether to employ or retain them

But that applies only to contract guards The government has no immediate plans to license in-house security officers This means that companies such as electrical retailer Comet, which employs its security officers in-house, still won't be able to find out about any spent convictions its prospective security officers might have.

"In terms of vetting our security staff, there is very little we can do other than standard vetting," says Comet's head of security, Trevor Turner Comet's standard vetting involves checking a job applicant's employment and education history, as well as paying for its new security staff to go to their local police station and obtain a criminal record certificate The police certificate, however, only contains spent convictions, in line with the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. Candidates are reimbursed for the cost of obtaining the certificate, says Turner.

References. Employers should not take written references at face value. Getting a job applicant's former employers to wine or talk openly about their former colleagues when obtaining a reference can prove difficult There is increasing tear among companies that they might be sued by their ex-employee over a negative reference. This is due to a growing "compensation culture" in the U.K., according to Mike Bluestone, managing director of Berkeley Security Bureau (BSB). "There is a tremendous nervousness out there among employers over lob references," says Bluestone, but "as long as a referee qualifies any opinion they voice, there should not be a problem"

Unlike in the U.S., there is no safe harbor protection in the U.K. for negative references, even if the information is factual. If the former employer can back up a negative reference with strong evidence, however, the company should be able to successfully defend any case brought by a former employee over a negative reference. But the fear of being sued by a former employee has led a number of major U.K companies to adopt a "no comment" policy tot ex-employee references.

Yet even if a former employer is unwilling to say anything negative in a written job reference, a company representative might open up about the former employee over the telephone, according to Capital Eye's Imbert. "Most companies are very reluctant to put in writing the reason why they dismissed someone," he says, "but this can often be got around by phoning managers in the company and asking them for more information about their former employee."

Out-of-country data. Verifying the employment history and gathering other information about a job applicant from outside the U.K. is a tougher challenge. But it is one that companies increasingly must face. According to Kroll, which screens staff for 350 of the Fortune 500 companies, globalization has led to a huge increase in recruitment of workers from outside of the U.K. in recent years. HSBC, for example, hires a lot of young people from Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa on a short-term basis, and these recruits are rarely registered on the Electoral Roll. "It costs more time and money to vet these applicants," says HSBC's Smith.

Karen Edwards, head of business development and sales at Kroll Background Worldwide, says that the ability to vet staff varies greatly from region to region. For instance, there is less personal data available in the developing world than there is in the developed world. In Europe, meanwhile, access to records that companies in the U.S. might take for granted is not always so easily obtained. "Europe has some of the strictest controls due to data protection laws," says Edwards. "For instance, you could not run a credit check on someone from France."

Companies vetting a lot of applicants from outside their home country should have a recruitment team that can speak a number of languages and that can "understand whether it is culturally right to canT out screening in certain countries," she advises.

Candidate interviews. In addition to verifying information provided on an application and checking the candidate's background and references, the hiring authority will, of course, talk with the candidate. BSB, which often interviews job applicants for clients, suggests the use of up to four people to conduct an interview whenever possible. Bluestone says that the interviewers learn more about the applicant by having someone in the room taking notes and another person monitoring the interviewee's manner, in addition to one or two interviewers who ask the questions. BSB also hires graphology experts from Loughborough University to analyze job applicants' handwriting and assess their qualities and demeanor.

Capital Eye's Imbert prefers the straightforward conversational interview over graphology, lie detector, and psychometric tests. "We use very traditional methods and conduct a non-confrontational interview," says Imbert. "Our interviewers are not there to trap job applicants; they are there to help them." Capital Eye discusses any gaps in an applicant's employment history openly during the interview, giving the interviewee an opportunity to explain discrepancies.

Ongoing screening. Many companies realize that screening of employees should not end upon hire; further checks should he run on staff members when they gain a significant promotion, for example, says BSB's Bluestone, whose screening company also helps companies investigate internal fraud. "In many cases, the employee who carried out the fraud had come through their preemployment check perfectly clean, but then became dishonest during the course of their employment," he notes. A gambling habit, family problems, or sudden access to a lot of money can cause seemingly trustworthy employees to commit fraud, says Bluestone.

GSK's Trundley agrees. "Your screening is only as good as an employee's last five minutes with the company," he says. To detect any problems, GSK runs further checks on employees as they progress through the company and take on extra responsibility.

Zephon Employee Screening, which vets staff for a number of blue-chip companies in the U.K., knows front experience the trail of incriminating evidence that public record checks can provide. A candidate chosen to run the trading operations of a leading financial institution for which Zephon was screening staff provided a series of False addresses in his application. Identification of his true addresses through the Electoral Roll and other official records led to the discovery of numerous CCJs, totaling 30,000 [pounds sterling] (U.S. $47,300). Further research through public records showed that he had also been declared bankrupt.

Zephon's interviews with the candidate's previous line managers indicated that he had incurred a large number of personal debts with colleagues and was considered both unreliable and financially unstable, factors a written reference from the personnel department had omitted. The case is just one example of why employers must carefully screen applicants before entrusting them with the company's resources and reputation.

Making the First Call

For front-line jobs, the first challenge for any employer is to avoid wasting time on candidates who are not qualified. To expedite that process, some companies in the U.K. are automating the initial screening of job candidates. For example, SSR Personnel, which runs security officer recruitment days for corporations and contract guarding companies, uses a computer system to screen out applicants who are clearly unsuited to work as security guards. Applicants click on boxes to answer questions about where they live, whether they can speak English, and what previous security industry experience they have.

First Security (Guards) Ltd, one of the U.K.'s biggest contract guarding companies, uses SSR's computer screening service. Jonathan Levine, managing director of First Security, says the process weeds out unsuitable applicants at an early stage, enabling his company to avoid unnecessary interviews and concentrate on screening serious applicants more thoroughly. "Our screening process is fairly intensive before we even speak to job applicants," says Levine.

Time is More Than Money

Once a security guard has been recruited, employers have 16 weeks to carry out a ten-year employment vet under the British Standard BS7858, but at least five years of employment history must be Checked before the guard can start work. This leads to employers losing job applicants to other industries, according to Terry O'Neil, managing director of The Security Watchdog, which screens security staff for a leading U.K. telecommunications company and guard service providers Brinks and Securiplan.

"The problem with five-year screening is that it can take time to get references from former employers over the telephone," he explains. "By the time you have completed the screening, the applicant has taken another job."

Consequently, there is a temptation far companies hiring security staff to cut corners when carrying out a five-year vet O'Neil wants to see initial screening of applicants' employment history shortened from five years to three years to speed things up. SSR Personnel's French agrees that the requirements for screening of a new security officer's employment history should be shortened. He thinks that the current five-year vet is unrealistic in today's U.K. security officer market due to the growing number Of takeovers and mergers between guarding companies. "[I]t can be hard to get your hands on five years' worth of a Security office's employment records," says French.

In the meantime, O'Neil suggests that employers that have yet to fill in the gaps on a job applicant's employment history but are confident that the applicant is suitable for the job, should let the applicant start work but under supervision, and on the proviso that any missing information is provided by the applicant in the first week of employment. The new licensing laws will allow for a new security officer to start work on this basis, provided the officer's criminal record has been checked before he or she starts work.

Lawrence Mark Cohen is a freelance writer based in the U.K.
COPYRIGHT 2003 American Society for Industrial Security
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Title Annotation:focus on Investigations
Author:Cohen, Lawrence Mark
Publication:Security Management
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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