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The past predicts the future.

The Past Predicts the Future

THE SELECTION PROCESS IS THE FIRST STEP TOward building a competent and trustworthy staff, and the background investigation is an integral element in this process. The background investigation, which must thoroughly explore a job applicant's past performance and his or her ability to handle expected job responsibilities. Changes in legislation regarding the polygraph and drug testing, along with the increasing liability of employers for the acts of their employees, underscore the need for the careful screening of all job applicants.

The scope and nature of the background investigation depends on the laws of the appropriate jurisdiction. Access to records--personnel and personal--as well as permissible methods of collecting information will vary. The legal department of an organization should be consulted when the policies and procedures of background investigations are being established. The position applied for will also affect the background investigation--a security clearance obviously will demand a more comprehensive investigation than may normally be conducted. Access to trade secrets and valuable assets and the resonsibility for personnel safety are potential risks that should be specifically addressed.

Due to the cost and number of hours involved, the background investigation is usually the last step in the selection process. Prior to the investigation, the applicant should have been given an intensive interview. He or she should have been required to provide details for all periods of time unaccounted for on the application. Names of individuals who could confirm employment, residences, and other claims should have been provided. The interviewer should offer the applicant an opportunity to address any derogatory information that may have arisen. The applicant should have been advised of the nature of the background investigation and signed a waiver that allowed access to the required personal data. The following are recommendations for various aspects of background investigations.

Employment. Records from previous employment will often carry great weight in determining an applicant's suitability and desirability. An investigator will want to stress several factors when interviewing former supervisors and coworkers. First, the applicant's job title and responsibilities should be verified. The quality of the applicant's work, time and attendance records, and relationship with other employees are important. Coworkers may be more likely to report on any disciplinary or adverse actions taken against the applicant.

The interviewer should be listening for any indications of warning signs. For example, a former coworker or supervisor may say the applicant started receiving unknown visitors or making several private telephone calls during the work-day, before leaving that job. This behavior may indicate a problem the applicant cannot face at home and that is now affecting his or her work. A former supervisor may not be telling the investigator the applicant resigned after being caught stealing to pay off gambling debts. If the former employer did not prosecute, he or she may not be allowed to divulge such information and is certainly not going to risk liability for your sake. Continuous indications of suspicious behavior may be a reason to reinterview the applicant.

However, when the investigator receives praise for the applicant, a specific recommendation for the job responsibilities being considered may be requested. The applicant may have performed superbly at his or her last assignment but may not have an aptitude for the work for which he or she is now being considered.

Credit. Credit reports may indicate financial problems that need clarification. Occasional late payments would generally not indicate a problem. Heavy debt that is not being paid off, especially to more than one creditor, may be a danger signal. Financial difficulties could be a weakness vulnerable to exploitation. An otherwise honest employee may fall victim to temptation in order to relieve the pressure being exerted by his or her creditors. Of course, heavy debt could mean nothing--it must be viewed in relation to the entire background check and any explanation offered by the applicant. Personal credit history is a sensitive matter. Prospective employers should ensure strict compliance with the Fair Credit Reporting Act and other applicable laws.

Criminal records. A criminal record on a job applicant is usually of paramount concern to the employer. However, access is limited by laws that vary by state. Additionally, rules of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regarding the use of criminal records in hiring decisions should be considered. If criminal records are of concern and are accessible, failure to review such records may mean future liability. Most security professionals are aware of recent reports of crimes committed by security guards. By the very nature of their position, security guards are afforded a certain level of public trust, which can be abused. There is a moral if not legal responsibility to ensure that this trust is not placed into the wrong hands.

Education. Perhaps the most important aspect of the education check is the verification of educational accomplishments claimed by the applicant. A blatantly false entry on an application could signal a casual attitude toward honesty. While a false claim may appear anywhere on the application, education is a likely spot because job applicants are aware--maybe incorrectly--that educational records are often not carefully checked. Interviewing a particular instructor may be appropriate. Any disciplinary measures taken by the school against the applicant should be explored. Involvement in extracurricular activities should be checked as a reflection of the applicant's abilities, interests, and initiative. Personal data such as date of birth, social security number, and residences should be matched against school records. While any discrepancy could easily be a harmless error, it should be clarified.

References. References will usually amount to nothing more than personal or professional associates who have been given a script to read by the applicant. However, the applicant should be able to provide a limited number of reputable members of the community who would recommend him or her. If references are requested, they should be checked. References, as with anyone interviewed, should be given the opportunity to provide any additional information not specifically requested.

Derogatory information. During the course of the investigation, the investigator may develop information that reflects negatively on the job applicant. This may be in the form of statements or written reports. When judging derogatory information, its nature and seriousness must be weighed. Consider the following:

* Does the person providing the information have any reason to lie (jealousy, personal conflicts, prejudices)?

* To hide or deny derogatory information is natural. How does the applicant's explanation fare, especially in relation to other information developed during the investigation?

* Is this an isolated incident, or does this or similar information appear in other aspects of the investigation?

* Is the information of such a nature that when coupled with any future problems it could constitute negligent hiring?

* May the information be lawfully used in making the decision?

The nature of a preemployment background investigation will be dictated not only by laws but also by management attitudes. Specific job responsibilities may require further checks than those mentioned. When conducting an investigation, the investigator must be careful to seek information without divulging personal data. When discrepancies are discovered, the investigator should discreetly attempt to clarify them without disclosing information provided on the job application. Reinterviews of the applicant may be necessary. If an applicant recently relocated, an investigation in the area he or she left may be required. There may be a reason the applicant moved to seek employment.

While the preemployment background investigation seems time-consuming and costly, it may be quite cost-effective when compared to the price of poor performance, high turnover, thefts of assets or information, or exposure to liability.

Michael Tabman, CPP, is an FBI special agent in New York City. He holds a master's degree in commercial security administration and is a member of ASIS.
COPYRIGHT 1989 American Society for Industrial Security
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:pre-employment background screening
Author:Tabman, Michael
Publication:Security Management
Date:Jul 1, 1989
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