Thursday, April 28, 2005

The role of "databases" in employment screening

Over the years professional background screeners have striven to provide their customers with the highest quality screening possible. Thus, primary source searches (searches done directly at the state or county levels) became and still remain the benchmark for due diligence criminal background checks. As you know, there isn't an NCIC style national criminal information system available to private sector employers or the vast majority of public and social service agencies. Consequently, credible screening agencies serviced their clients using the best screening tools available under the law.

Database searches (data purchased from primary source and re-sold to end users) have come under increasing scrutiny and regulation by the federal government. The feds know what we have known for years: databases are inherently inaccurate in some critical ways. First, databases will cause the employer to miss records. I have tested several national databases against real court house searches and find them to be about 60% accurate. Databases are updated sporadically. Sometimes this is the fault of the court system that sells the data which, on occasion, is not able to meet the download schedule requested by the re-seller. Often, a re-seller who cannot afford to purchase down loads regularly is the culprit. Last, database accuracy is affected by original sin. Certain state and county repositories are only happy to pass their internal inaccuracies on to a re-seller who is only happy to pass them on to you. For example, the Texas state repository is notoriously inaccurate because Texas counties are not required to report their data. Additionally, there is no uniform "system" in place for the convenience of the counties that do report their data. Nevertheless, the Texas repository is only happy to pass this data on to re-sellers and end users for a fee.

These inaccuracies, however, are not what is upsetting the fed. They could care less if an elementary school using a database missed a record and hired a janitor with a history of molesting children! This is the concern of the tens of thousands of civil attorneys who are standing by waiting for a negligent hiring case to litigate. No, the fed is concerned with consumer rights. They are concerned about protecting a "consumer" whose employment or prospective employment could be jeopardized because an employer considered a potentially incomplete court record. Post-adjudication actions such as expungements or set aside judgments are good examples. As an H.R. professional you should be concerned that the fed is concerned. They are just now beginning to enforce FCRA regulations on database use and have recently leveled heavy fines for non-compliance.

There are two other factors that have dramatically increased the legal exposure an employer now faces by using a database as their primary screening tool. The first has to do with the recent negative press surrounding the two largest criminal database companies. I believe the the FED will take a close look at the way these vendors operate and that the closer scrutiny will filter down to the end users. We have already had an influx of new clients wanting to distance them selves from these companies, all now interested in conducting due diligence screenings. The second is of even more significance and yet has largely escaped the vast majority of database customers (and their legal counsels). This has to do with the vivid disclosures and acknowledgements database companies have made regarding the questionable accuracy of the products they sell. These published statements have placed employers in a "should have known" situation in the event a problem occurs. Triple your settlement dollars if you signed an agreement with one of the database re-sellers that contained such a disclosure. Double it if you read the disclosure on a site like the Texas DPS Web site but ignored it anyway.

Many employers continue to use databases as their sole screening source regardless of the risk, as a cost saving measure. Databases are cheap. But an employer that uses criminal database searches as their primary screening tool is wading into an ever deepening and murky pond of legal exposure. Yet there is a place for database use in employment screening. I believe that databases can enhance a due-diligence screening package to make it even more "bullet proof". A national criminal database can cast a wide net to perhaps identify a crime an applicant or employee may have committed while traveling or on vacation. They can also be helpful in the event your applicant intentionally lied on their application about where they have lived or worked. The national database search is ideal for companies hiring over-the-road drivers, traveling executives or sales staff.

Professional screeners are always searching for ways to improve the quality and effectiveness of the service they provide. That's why we are releasing our newest product, Diligence Plus. Because of complex federal (FCRA) and state regulations regarding the use of database searches in employment screening, we cannot offer Diligence Plus as a primary screening (stand alone) tool. It is only offered as a supplement to a proper, due-diligence search package. Additionally, federal regulations dictate that any hit obtained through Diligence Plus be confirmed by conducting an actual court search in the indicated venue.

We have always believed that databases should never be used as a primary screening tool. We are glad that the federal government agrees and we fully abide by the message they've sent with the encumbrances they've placed on their use. We believe this is best for employers and the safety of their employees and customers. However, we believe that a nationwide criminal database, like Diligence Plus, when properly used and properly integrated into your screening process, can greatly enhance the effectiveness of your due diligence screening program.

If you would like to bullet proof your screening process for little additional cost, please call us. For just $10.00 per search Diligence Plus can give you the best night sleep you've had in a long time.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Pay-per-snitch - will these programs keep drugs and guns out of schools?

To snitch or not to snitch. That is the question and one we've posed to over 80 thousand students throughout Texas over the last few years. And, a matter taken up by a Rome Georgia high school recently when they announced a new pay-per-snitch program.

Since the inception of the ChooseToCare program I have been against reward based tip line programs. My belief is that this sends the wrong message to students who ought to be taught to do something simply because it is the "right thing". And, in a system where character education falls short or is largely ineffective, intentionally sending a message that does nothing to advance the concept of civic duty appears repugnant to me.

In Rome (Georgia) Model High School educators have not only adopted a pay for information policy, but they have established a bargain basement bill of fare to incent students to talk. According to the Associated Press, students will be paid $10.00 for theft related information, $25. to $50. to dime a drug dealer, and up to $100.00 for guns or serious felonies. Fittingly, funding will be derived from candy and soda vending machine proceeds.

I have administered tip-line programs for over 30 years. During this time I have run several "dime a thief" type programs. In all, I've issued maybe $3000. in awards during that time. Curiously, the programs that were reward driven were the most negatively perceived and and netted the least results. Most people who have provided credible tips have done it for reasons other than the reward. Many of the people I dealt with turned down the reward, some truely offended by the notion of being offered one. The vast majority of folks who have provided information were wholly unaware that an award was available when they provided the information. In fact, I've had to push money into the hands of some informants who I knew could really use the cash. Many of the people I've dealt with in my career have been young people - juveniles ranging from 16 - 18 years old. In the business environment I came to view pay-for-tip programs as sometimes handy, if not unnecessary. In the school environment I believe them to be contrary to what we should be teaching our kids and to what any quality ethics program ought to be about.

ChooseToCare's School Safety & Drug Assessment Survey addresses the important issue of what motivates students to or prevents students from breaking the code of silence. And believe me, one exists in every school. Sadly, only 43% of students say they would report a security concern even when they believed it could harm them or someone they knew. The majority of students (57%) would hesitate to make a report for a variety of reasons. Almost 24% of students wouldn't tell for fear that others might find out. And this is where a school district can make a significant impact on the student code of silence. Twenty percent of all students say they would report a student safety issue only if they could be anonymous! Add this to the 43% of students who would report a safety concern and you have tipped the scales in favor of student safety in your district.

The majority of kids who are reluctant to pass on critical information are afraid. They are afraid of physical harm, being ostracized, and being known as a a "narc". But more importantly, these fears are predicated on the perceived risk that their involvement will be found out. And this is where reward programs fail as a sole strategy. Students perceive that reward based programs are not truely anonymous. They know, to begin with, that the telephone number of the phone from which their call was made will likely appear on the phone bill of the agency administering the pay-for-information program. They also know that there is some risk attached to the reward payment process which usually reqiures that you present yourself in person in order to receive your reward. This is a skepticizm we have heard repeatedly during our student focus group sessions and one I believe is rooted in a general distrust of the "adult system".

Add the ability to be truely anonymous and we find that about 63% of students say they would make a report. How to reach the remaining 37% is a question worth investigating. Perhaps some would be reached by initiating an ethics program that stressed "doing the right thing for the right reason". A proper ethics program might make a difference with the 10% of the student population that simply "don't want to get involved". Or, the 5% of students who believe nothing would ever be done based upon their report. Or, even the 4.8% who would be afraid to make a report out of fear of being wrong. A quality tip line that is properly promoted as part of a strong character education program (ethics) could truely make a difference in reaching some of these students.

The most popular arguement I have heard from pay-per-snitch proponants is the "just one gun" arguement. If the program gets just one gun out of a school it was worth it. But if this is the only strategy and it is implemented absent the character education which I believe has the potential to reach far more students than those motivated by purely mercenary values, than the harm the message sends outweighs the benefit. A similar arguement was presented in support of an MTV sponsored hot line some states have unfortunately adopted. When this program was presented to the state of Texas for use as a statewide program, I argued that MTV was an innappropriate vehicle for the effort because of the questionable messages it sends to kids. I believed then as I do now that the effort was more an attempt by MTV to improve their image than a true effort to impact school safety. Yet, the "just one gun" arguement was presented by some administrators in support of the program. Luckily, more level heads prevailed.

As I mentioned I have used reward money in conjunction with tip lines before. I'm not opposed to offering money for tips so long as it is not presented as the marquis motivator on which the program is based. But unfortunately, some school districts have adopted such approaches because it is easier than teaching students why, particularly after Columbine and Red Lake, they should be concerned about their safety and the safety of others around them. I think it is important to understand, however, just who educators are reaching (notwithstanding the "just one gun" arguemet) with pay-per-snitch programs. Recently, I enhanced the School Safety & Drug assessment survey to query students about the extent to which they might be motivated by rewards for information. We will be able to compile the survey data to determine if there are material differences in the responses of urban, suburban and rural students. When I think I have sufficient data from which to draw conclusions I'll be happy to publish the results. In the meantime I will be following the Rome model to see just how the disarmament is going.

In a time when many schools have adopted pay-for-grade programs I can understand why some believe that cash awards may be the quick and easy path to success. One administrator offered that cash removes the value judgement from the decision to "snitch". I guess the message is that doing it for the money has truely become the American why. As we quietly slip and slide towards a non judgemental society my advice to the Romans is to load your vending machines with something more profitable than snacks. You'll need that revenue as the market forces the price of information higher than ten bucks a pop.

Identity theft - is there anything you can do?

Identity theft occurs on so many levels now that it is difficult to say whether the average person can do anything to prevent it from happening to them. If you buy on credit, rent or own a home, shop at a retail store, own or lease a car, or basically breathe at all, your personal information is available for thieves to exploit. Why, because data aggregators (such as Lezus Nexus, Choicepoint, or the credit bureaus) are aggressively pursuing your personal data for profit. And, in many respects, their accumulation of your personal information is unregulated. Easy to understand when you consider that the federal government is the aggregator's biggest customer. Moreover, the vast administrative and operational complexity of such companies makes it more lilkely that internal controls designed to protect your data will fail at some point over time. In fact, thieves count on it.

To a large degree the likelihood that your personal data will be snatched from one of these aggregators is a matter of chance. Put another way, that your data won't be compromised is simply pure luck. When theives work their way into the aggregator's system they can net thousands if not hundreds of thousands of records to include social securtity numbers, birth dates, credit card account numbers, purchasing habits and other potentially damaging data. With this data, thieves are able to cherry pick consumers with the very best credit for identity theft and credit fraud. Dumpster or trash diving is no longer the chosen method of the more sophisticated thieves.

What then can you reasonably do to reduce the likelihood that you credit will be destroyed by identity theft? First, carefully review debit card or credit card statements for any questionable activity. On line access programs provided by most major credit card companies and banks enable you to do this more frequently than by if you simply reviewed the statement you receive monthly by mail. Contact the bank or credit card company quickly if you notice anything suspicious. Next, obtain a copy of your credit bureau report at least once a year and review it carefully. Multi-bureau reports are now available. Don't be surprised by a problem that you were not aware of at a time when you need credit the most.

Last, buy a cross-cut shredder for your home. They are cheap enough and will prevent the indigent or any other dumpster diver from obtaining any useable information. Be sure to shred those "pre-approved" credit card applications that come in the mail on an almost daily basis. And, if you have accumulated years of cancelled checks and credit card statements consider calling a mobile document disposal service that allows you to observe the shredding process at you home or place of business. If you live in an apartment, avoid placing credit card payments in common outgoing mail receptacles. Thieves break into these regularly.

Doing these things will not necessarily prevent you from becomming a victim of identity theft or credit card fraud. But, you may be able to lessen the chances of it happening or, minimally, control the damage if it does.