In recent years there has been a rising sense of awareness among facility managers about the service providers, including the janitors, working in their buildings. Building service contractors are finding that it is not only prudent, but necessary to perform background checks on their employees.

Since Sept. 11, there has been an enhanced sense of security and safety across the nation. Facility and property managers have noticed this among their employees, and are demanding more thorough screenings of the service providers they hire.

“You want to know what kind of people you have in your building and working there,” says Sherale Taylor, director of environmental services of Lakeland Regional Healthcare in St. Joseph, Mich.

The main reason to perform background checks, says David W. Hewett, is to minimize liability risks. Hewett, a Hillsboro, Ore.-based consultant and former BOMA chairman, says that property owners want to be assured that the people brought into their buildings have a legitimate reason to be there, and that the potential for criminal behavior is minimized.

Alleviating blame

Any time there’s a theft occupants and facility managers begin assessing blame. Performing background checks can help take some of the focus, though not always 100 percent, off the cleaning staff. Thefts put facility managers in the middle, says Hewett, and while the manager may not want to blame the cleaning crew, he or she has to follow through with an investigation.

Everyone — employees of the building where the theft occurred, the cleaning staff, even managers — is under scrutiny until all the facts are known, says Robert B. Toothaker, CPM, chairman of CB Richard Ellis/Bradley in South Bend, Ind. He agrees that the authorities must be brought in each time. In his experiences, police often ask about background checks of both the service providers and the customers’ employees.

If the BSC has performed background checks it may reduce some of the blame, but the firm will still be under scrutiny, at least initially. Janitors are typically the first people to be accused, a stigma that’s attached to the cleaning industry.

“It’s unfortunate, but it’s there,” says Taylor. Lakeland has a lot of security cameras in place, she says, which aid in any investigation.

Toothaker says that by performing background checks, the BSC fosters a better relationship with his customer.

“[Background checks] become a value-add to the contract relationship and is an important aspect of the overall business relationship with the property manager,” he says.

Check for what?

The types of checks BSCs should perform can vary by the project and location. Hewett suggests two areas of concern that should be addressed for all new hires: Whether the person is in the country legally and any pertinent criminal issues. Some non-felony matters that were taken care of may not preclude a person from the position. More serious matters, however, including outstanding warrants, are cause for concern and should be brought to the attention of management.

Facility managers of large and small companies alike often require drug testing for their own employees, Hewett says, so it will become more common for outside staff to face that requirement as well.

“You want to have people on your property that won’t pose any potential liability or risk issues for you,” he adds.

Also important is how extensively the BSC digs for information. A thorough review speaks volumes about the level of professionalism a service provider brings to the table, says Toothaker.

“You’re talking about a range of vetting,” he says. “How deep are they drilling down into the background check?”

Facility managers look more favorably on companies that perform thorough screening processes, for example, screening for drugs, checking criminal records, credit history and driving records as well as verifying Social Security numbers. When screening employment history, it’s better to call all past employers and not simply the most recent ones.

Certain facilities will demand more testing. For example, a medical office will have different requirements than an industrial building. That doesn’t mean a background check shouldn’t be done, but it may not need to be as thorough, says Toothaker.

Background checks can be expensive for BSCs, so some contractors might try to save money by minimizing the process, says Donna Piha, assistant property manager for GlenStar Properties in Chicago. But background checks help ensure that the contractors facility managers deal with are professional and their employees are not strong liabilities, she says. Skimping on quality could jeopardize the trust between BSC and client.

Many BSCs offset the cost of background checks by billing it into the contract. While some BSCs may be afraid the higher bid will cost them the job, Toothaker stresses that customers often look for the best bid and that doesn’t mean the lowest price.

Piha says that GlenStar Properties is willing to pay more for cleaning services knowing that the background checks have been performed.

“It’s something that we look for when we interview,” she says.

“To me it’s a no-brainer that you’ll go with the company that does the background checks,” adds Toothaker.

Facility managers want to have confidence in the employees that the BSCs provide for the project. By performing background checks, BSCs show that they have a sense of duty to the job, Toothaker says, which relieves some concern on the part of the customer.

“In today’s market and today’s world to have background checks on your employees not only helps you but helps the people you’re providing the service for,” he says. In addition, firms that perform background checks show a higher degree of professionalism and a more responsible way of doing business.

Contractors need to remember that they run a professional organization providing an important service to other professionals. BSCs should promote the fact they perform background checks because they may be putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage if they don’t tell their clients what pre-employment screening has been done. An even greater disadvantage is if BSCs don’t conduct background checks at all.

“You’re going to see more and more people say, ‘You have to do this, or we won’t hire your team,’” says Hewett.

Thomas R. Fuszard is a business writer from New Berlin, Wis.