From Drug tests and employment history checks to criminal records and credit checks, building service contractors have the power to investigate many aspects of a prospective employee’s life.

When hiring, minimizing liabilities should be one of the most important considerations for employers in the cleaning industry, as employee conduct affects coworkers, customers, company equipment and possibly the company’s reputation.

The search begins
A company should consult its attorney regarding company policies dictating hiring practices and liabilities, and in determining how extensive their background checks should be, says Steve Carter, president of RTI, Inc.-ScanScreener, Dallas. Those being checked must know the check is being done and approve it in writing.

Background checks can include investigations into a person’s previous employment, driving record and credit history. In more specific cases, workers compensation histories can be pulled.

“A typical security background search should include a trace on the Social Security number the individual has given, as well as a criminal history check searching as many data resources as is economically feasible, particularly the national sex offender registry,” Carter says.

Most criminal checks include a scan of the national and state sex offender registries. Most states only report arrests that resulted in a conviction.

Government regulation of background screening and criminal investigations was grouped in with that of credit reports in the Fair Credit Reporting Act, “so the same laws the cover credit reports to a great extent cover just about any other background screening that you do of this nature,” says Nick Barryman, general manager of 360 Check, formerly InterSearch Inc., Atlanta.

Background checks are an art, Barryman points out, and require more time and investigation than the pass-or-fail drug screen.

Liability and productivity concerns prompt drug tests, Barryman says, which can be extremely important to BSCs if employees are operating expensive machinery in expensive environments. Also, in some states, employers can get a discount on workers compensation insurance, ranging from 7.5 to 15 percent of premiums, if they have an approved drug-testing program in place.

The most basic drug panel tests for five major drugs, including marijuana and cocaine, in the urine. Other panels can test for seven or 13 substances.

Five or more years ago, drug testing was more prevalent than background screenings, Barryman says, but the latter has caught up — partly because of Sept. 11.

“Certainly over the last three to five years there’s a lot more interest in it because there’s a lot more going on in the world and a lot more reporting about background checking in the news,” Barryman says. “It tends to point out to people they may or may not know who they actually have working for them, especially if they employ a lot of foreign people.”
The illegal alien issue presents another hurdle for employers. Unfortunately, fake documentation can be difficult to identify.

“It is virtually impossible to eliminate fraudulent documentation if an individual is absolutely determined to use fake identification,” Carter says. “But background checks are getting better every day and the criminal trail is becoming easier to track.”

Why check?
While there is no perfect way to check an individual’s identity and background, says Carter, commercial background checks can keep claims against a company at a minimum.

Barryman says the number one reason BSCs conduct background checks is that they’re required in a contract.

“(BSCs) have very thin profit margins and most of them currently do not seem to do background checks unless it’s required in their contract to do them,” Barryman says.

As a rule, it’s good for employers to know who they have working for them, he says — especially in trades in which employees are working unsupervised or in customers’ homes and businesses.

“It returns a benefit to them by lowering their turnover and provides another intangible benefit of just knowing who you have working for you and not accidentally hiring someone who’s a known thief or rapist,” he continues.

The cost savings provided by employee retention is easy for BSCs to see, Barryman says. Annual employee turnover can range between 100 and 300 percent, and the cost for training a new employee can top $700, he says. So paying for background checks and drug tests — which usually run from $30 to $50 each — up front end up saving money in the long run.

And whether they like it or not, company owners are somewhat responsible for their employees’ actions. The first time an employer ends up in court over the indiscretions of an employee will be the last time they hire someone without checking him or her out, Barryman says.

In a world of tightening budgets and worker shortfalls, it might be hard to convince some employers to conduct background checks and drug tests.

Employers who fear that background checks will cause more problems and result in further worker shortages, however, may find the practice will create a team of good, long-term employees.

BSCs can take some steps to screen employees at little cost, Barryman says. Employers should always be confirming employment histories of applicants, and looking for an applicant who has had continuous employment over many years.

“They can also check with the Social Security Administration to check the accuracy of names and Social Security numbers,” he adds, and employers can sign up online for that free service.

For those who are ambitious, criminal records are stored at county courthouses, or many states have their court records online.

Whether employers use a professional service or not, they need to be careful that the company documentation supports how that information is used, Barryman warns, as it may be illegal to deny employment based on convictions — unless they relate to a particular job.

“You are required to document your program and you’re required to apply your criteria equally to employees in the same classification,” he says.