Back before society became so mobile, checking the backgrounds of potential employees was pretty much a matter of asking around the neighborhood: Were the applicants honest? Reliable? Hardworking?
Things have gotten considerably more complex. Today, virtually every company is vulnerable to hiring problem employees - not only those who are dishonest, but those who create untrue educational backgrounds and those who have spent time in jail for everything from fraud to rape.
Although certain institutions, such as schools, hospitals and HMOs, are required by law to conduct background checks on employees, many employers are taking the matter into their own hands and hiring private investigators to make certain that applicants are telling the truth.
For instance, companies that send employees to customers' homes want to be sure they will not physically assault the homeowners. And firms want to be certain that a new bookkeeper hasn't been convicted of embezzling tens of thousands of dollars.
Conducting background checks can help reduce your legal exposure if a problem should occur. They carry considerable weight in demonstrating that your business did its part to try to establish that employees are trustworthy and that your company was not negligent. Lawsuits resulting from a lack of due diligence can potentially cost a company thousands, if not millions, of dollars in litigation and damages.
Many employers used to have human resources personnel check potential employees' backgrounds, but as companies have downsized, this work is increasingly being farmed out to private investigators. While costs vary, most background checks run around $200, a reasonable fee when it comes to insuring the safety of your other employees and your business.
Licensed private investigators can verify an employee's academic credentials -- an area that is frequently subject to out-and-out fabrications as well as exaggeration. Here are some other items they examine:
Previous employers and professional licensing
Department of motor vehicle records, which often turn up drunk driving convictions
Gaps in resumes
Indications that the person is living beyond his means or has significant debt, particularly if an individual is going to be handling money
Investigators will also do criminal record checks, which can be more complex than you might expect. As one private investigator noted, there are national criminal clearinghouses, but the information is only available to law enforcement officials. So private investigators must gather their information through court records -- and there are many courts in this country.
There are times when investigators are unable to ascertain someone's background. Some reasons: Social Security numbers can be faked, records can be lost, names can be changed and so forth. Most investigators report that their worst nightmare is incorrectly identifying someone as having a criminal record. However, if they have any doubts whatsoever about the information gathered, most investigators will notify the employer of their concerns.
Important: Have the results of a background check in hand before you hire someone. One investigator points to an employer who hired an individual and then requested a background check: The private investigator did a criminal background check only to discover that this individual had embezzled -- and just a few months prior to being hired -- $25,000 from her previous employer. It's better not to find out about surprises after an employee is on the payroll.
On the other hand, investigators report that background checks often turn up positive news. You may find out that a potential employee has an excellent reputation -- the type of person your competitors would love to hire -- and you can sleep better knowing you made the right decision.