Sunday, September 15, 2002

Job seekers with shady pasts need not apply

Groesbeck firm heads off liars and other losers

By James McNair,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        GROESBECK — On paper, the candidate for the chief financial officer job looked distinguished indeed.

        Applying for a job with a Fortune 500-listed insurance company, the man listed the experience, the references and the education — a master's degree — for the job. He also made a great impression in person.

        But after put him under its microscope, he was reduced to what he really was — a charlatan., a company that specializes in pre-employment background checks, learned that the man had never gone to college, let alone completed postgraduate work. Further digging revealed that he had been fired 10 years previously for embezzling from a previous employer to pay off $50,000 in credit card debt. The dirt went into's report to the insurance company.

        “Needless to say, they didn't hire the individual,” said John P. Hart II, Selection .com's chief executive officer.

        From his days as a part-time security guard at the University of Cincinnati in the mid-1980s, Mr. Hart is still safeguarding the interests of others. But now, instead of keeping an eye on buildings and TV monitors, he uses computers and databases to tell corporate clients what they need to know about people they're thinking about hiring.

        It's a successful enterprise., formerly known as Selection Management Systems, has 35 employees and more than $9 million in annual revenue. The privately owned company is the exclusive pre-employment background search service for Office Depot, Jiffy Lube, Airborne Express and others. It also claims hospitals, funeral home chains, banks and airlines.

        With so many Americans with criminal records, prison records, substance abuse records, child- and spouse-abuse histories and wretched credit histories, it's no wonder corporations and institutions are requiring job applicants to submit to background checks. It's also no wonder that about 13,000 companies are in the background-checking business.

        “The need has never been greater, particularly in a health-care environment where the risk of human error is high,” said Lynn Olman, president of the Greater Cincinnati Health Council, a consortium of 33 hospitals in 14 counties. “We can't afford to hire employees who have questionable backgrounds or who aren't honest about their backgrounds or employment history.” shouldn't be mistaken for a private investigation firm, which does its snooping on the sly. unleashes its hounds with the consent of job applicants. Precisely which hounds and how many hounds depends on how far clients want to go and how much money they're willing to spend. Sending people out of state to ask former co-workers or neighbors about someone can run up quite a tab.

        A decade ago, Mr. Hart said, pre-employment screens were cursory and often consisted of checking local police agencies and courts. If employers took a look at an employee's past, he said, it typically was done after the employee was on board. And if employers needed to cut spending, personnel department functions such as background checks often became expendable.

        All that changed as the nation's lawsuit-mania expanded the notion of employees as living corporate liabilities. Take Mr. Hart's hypothetical example of a restaurant employee who flips out and cold-cocks a customer, entreating the victim to a nice payday in civil court. A background check might have uncovered an assault and battery conviction or some other indicator of violence.

        “Had they done that background check, that person might not have been beaten up and that lawsuit might not have occurred,” Mr. Hart said.

        Terrorism and the corporate crime wave have also triggered an increase in pre-employment checks, he said. Not that employers are screening for affiliations with extremist groups or exhuming the reasons behind sudden, unexplained corporate departures. But they are, Mr. Hart said, more aware that what they see isn't always what they get.

        “I think 9-11 has heightened awareness that background checks are necessary,” he said. “Companies that were doing very limited searches are expanding their searches. Office Depot is very diligent about making sure that every employee that comes into its door is of the highest caliber.”

        Weeding out dishonest or at least unethical job candidates at the executive level calls for broader evaluations, including, at Selection .com, a 200-question psychological assessment that is supposed to measure things such as propensity to steal, loyalty, and ethical and moral values. Mr. Hart said he expects more of that at the board of directors level as well.

        “In the past, white-collar workers weren't the ones that got searched. It was the blue-collar worker,” he said. “We're seeing a lot more character checks — a lot more professional and license verifications and education and credit verifications.

        “If you take everything at face value, you're going to lose,” Mr. Hart said. “Our job is to make sure everything you're getting is in front of you.”


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