Thursday, June 16, 2005

Background Screening Debunked!

Today, screening your employees properly is a necessary cost of doing business. Thirty, perhaps even twenty years ago there was a mystique surrounding the process and private investigators often charged exorbitant fees to check employee backgrounds. Then, the fees charged often reflected the time a P.I. spent driving to the county courthouse, schmoozing a court clerk, paying other P.I.’s to obtain out-of-state records, or simply sitting at the local donut shop. Private investigators often alluded to confidential contacts at the police department or other nebulous sources for information in order to maintain the mystique surrounding what they did. In reality, they were accessing what amounted to be public records. Notwithstanding, clients, many of whom had initially been stung by a dishonest employee, were willing to pay the $200 - $400 dollars a P.I. would charge for the service. Competition was negligible and agencies were all too happy to collect the fees. Screening employees was not an industry standard practice thirty years ago and only a very few employers could afford the cost.

Thankfully, the era of the $300 dollar background check is long gone. Today, most employers understand that background checking entails accessing public information. With the onset of computers, obtaining criminal history and other necessary employment information is inexpensive compared to thirty, twenty, or even ten years ago. The industry is extremely competitive which has contributed to the lowering of prices. Today, screening employees is standard throughout all industry sectors and mandated in many sectors by regulation or legal climate. Ironically, employers today are faced with more perplexing issues than the potential to overpay for background searches. Government regulation and technology have combined to confound what should be a simple process. Add to this the fact that a material segment of the employment screening industry flourishes by overtly or tacitly deceiving their clients about what they are doing and a haziness reminiscent of that which permeated the industry thirty years ago emerges again.

Much of the industry operates on the principle that “an educated consumer is our best customer”. But a growing segment appears to adhere to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule. Potential clients interested in conducting employment searches for the first time might get the impression that the industry is simply and clearly divided between agencies that charge cheap prices for their services and those that needlessly charge more. The unfortunate perception, and one perpetuated by some in the industry, is that technology has driven down the cost of accessing and delivering background screening information to the client, and that this accounts for the $5.00 background checks now available on the Internet and elsewhere. This is the dangerous half-truth that many agencies exploit, that serves to confuse the public, and that places many employers and their customers at risk.

Clearly, a large part of the problem lies with the business community which does not fully understand the background screening process. Many business consumers are attracted only by price but clearly do not understand what their $5.00 is purchasing. Our client list is filled with businesses that have thrown money away on $5.00 background checks only to find that they hired an employee with a serious record that a true background check would have uncovered. They fell victim to the database search.

In many respects conducting a true background check is the same now as it was thirty years ago. Public (source) records must be searched just like the “private eye” once did. Today, screening firms use a nationwide network of “runners” who spend their entire day searching court house records. Where allowed, agencies go on-line with the court system to access the same records available to the clerk of courts. On-line court access, SSL protected client input / retrieval systems, HR record interfaces and other technology innovations have served to reduce the costs and turnaround time associated with doing real court record checks. Generally, records are searched and located at the county level. Where a quality statewide repository exists, an agency can check all counties in the state for one moderate fee. Searches are conducted in venues uncovered by a social security number trace and in those identified on the employment application. The cost of a search will necessarily vary by person depending upon where the applicant has lived or worked. In most cases a client should expect to pay from $25. - $50. for a criminal record search that covers the necessary venues. Additional costs would apply if credit or other special reports are needed. Maiden names and aliases must be checked separately as most courts do not cross reference by other names used. If a screening agency is charging substantially more than these prices for criminal history reports, a flag should be raised. Flags should also be raised if the prices are substantially less.

What gives then with the $5.00 (or $7.95, or $10.00) background checks? These are database searches, not true public record searches. Database records are purchased from the originating government source, reformatted and resold to the end user. Databases are proprietary to the reseller because they are no longer under the control of the originating public agency. Although they are cheap, they pose many problems for the employer and public safety. Database searches lack the integrity of public record searches since they are updated only periodically, which places them at odds with federal regulations governing consumer reporting agencies. The federal government requires that all “hits” originating from a database search be verified by a real court record search before the results can be used in the employment decision. Large database resellers were reluctant to inform their clients of this requirement since it appeared to defeat the purpose of their product. Many resellers have recently taken action to inform their clients of this requirement after severe security breaches on the part of two major re-sellers drew attention to control and compliance within the industry. Another flaw - databases generally contain less information than the original court record because resellers download fewer data fields to their systems in order to save money. This creates an additional and serious data integrity issue. Last, because updates are periodic (sometimes yearly), end users are obligated to re-screen applicants again after they are hired in order to capture records that failed to hit the database originally.

Here are some actual examples of how clients have poured their company’s money down the drain on database searches:

  • A school district hired a janitor with a record of child molestation after he was cleared using a database search. The database used did not include the county in which the conviction occurred

  • A retailer hired a finance executive with a history of embezzlement after he was cleared using a database search. Because the database had not been updated in the county in which the record occurred for the prior 6 month period, the record was missed.

  • A small manufacturing firm used a nationwide database to screen its employees. The firm, which had two U.S. locations, hired employees who were primarily local to the plant locations. Unfortunately, the re-seller failed to inform the firm that the database did not include records from either of the states in which the plants were located. As a result, employees with dishonest pasts were hired at both locations.

Resellers often present their “instant” database searches as the product of the latest in innovation and technology. However, quick and inexpensive access to information that is less that 50% accurate at best, and the use of which is encumbered by increased federal regulation, is not a viable risk management tool. While $5.00 background checks may impress your company’s budget director, they will not impress the legal department or company president who must disburse a large settlement fee. This article is not written for the HR executive who has made the decision to use databases with a full knowledge of what they are (or are not) getting. It is written for the executive who is faced with making a choice between background screening service providers and who may not fully understand the difference between a $5.00 background check and a $25.00 background check. It is written to help educate the business community and to give decision makers the edge over those in the industry who operate under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” principle. It is written to help protect employers, employees, students, customers, and others from unfortunate hiring decisions. Following are questions to ask when selecting a background screening service provider:

o When you call will you be able to speak to a qualified professional who is knowledgeable about employment screening law as opposed to a salesperson whose sole responsibility is to sell data?

o How long has the agency been in business?

o Are you getting real courthouse searches or databases?

o If the agency offers “statewide searches” do these searches access the official state repository and does the state require counties to report to the repository?

o Are you getting both felony and misdemeanor records when you request a search?

o Will the agency provide you with client references of companies similar to yours?

o Is the agency knowledgeable about the FCRA and can they assist you with compliance?

o Is the agency licensed (where required) and insured?

o Is your agency able to help you construct an employment screening policy?

o Does your agency understand what a due-diligence search is and are they able to help you in developing a due-diligence search program for each level of employee in your organization?

Employers can screen out applicants who have been dishonest on their applications even before the criminal background check has been requested – and should. Search the index of this Blog for the article entitled, “Take a Course in Defensive Hiring”. Here you will find all you will need to know to do a diligent job of flushing out resume and application fraud. From there, let you background screening agency do its job. Standards and best practices have developed in the industry that together dictate what is involved in doing a due-diligence search. Industry and legal experts agree that criminal history database searches do not meet due-diligence standards. The notion that “doing something is better than doing nothing at all” may have made partial sense ten years ago, but provides no solace today. Having an inadequate or flawed program, when faced with a negligent hiring suit, will likely result in a larger settlement than if there was no program in place at all. Bottom line, select a screening firm that has the expertise necessary to assist you in developing a due-diligence program – and stick to it. Today, the greater risk is in paying too little for your background check. The old adage “if it’s too good to be true, then it probably is” is more true today than ever before!

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Breaking the student code of silence – the facts about tip-lines

I like the movie “Scent of a Woman”. I am a big Al Pacino fan. But I have always struggled to understand the underlying purpose of the message depicted during the movie’s expulsion hearing scene. This is the scene in which Col. Frank Slade chooses the only strategy he could think of to get Charlie Simms off the hook. That strategy was to make old Charlie appear somehow righteous for refusing to “snitch” on fellow classmates for acts of vandalism. Ironically, Slade, a military college graduate, was educated under a code of student conduct where revealing dishonesty among fellow students was considered to be the epitome of ethical behavior. I find it just a little heartening to know that most all critical commentaries that refer to the movie as “great but flawed.” cite this message as part of the reason.

Now that the identity of Deep Throat is known, we can expect to see a national media debate on the ethics, loyalty, and the propriety of whistle blowing. Sides are forming now and I am certain that ultimately the truth will be lost in the brouhaha – that is, that there should be no debate. Every citizen has an ethical obligation to report acts of wrongdoing that have the potential to impact the physical safety of others or the overall wellbeing of society. Ok, call me an idealist. But, while this national debate may play out to be a philosophical one, students are more practical in their views on the issue. With students the issue is one of fear rather than ethics or peer loyalty. Is there really a student code of silence when it comes right down to it? If there is, I believe it is one that can be broken.

Our basis for this assessment is not speculation. Our assessment is based upon the School Safety & Drug Assessment Survey taken by tens of thousands of students throughout Texas over the last three years. The survey is a joint project of the Texas School Safety Center and ChooseToCare. Without a way to report things anonymously, 57% of students surveyed say they would likely not report something they knew could potentially harm them or someone they knew. This figure is both astounding and disturbing. Add an anonymous tip-line and now over 63% of students say they would not hesitate to report crimes or other harmful behaviors. The issue – fear! Students are afraid of physical retaliation; being ostracized by their peers; or, being labeled a snitch. Thankfully, only a small percentage of students (5.5%) seem to believe that doing what most reasonable people believe is the “right thing” somehow violates a student “code of silence”. Given a safe and secure way to report issues without saying who they are, the majority of students say they would come forward. Apathy among students (14%) characterizes the feelings of the majority of students who say they would not report a student safety issue. They simply don’t want to get involved or they feel no action would be taken based upon their report.

Based upon the post incident investigation we can speculate that what happened at Columbine may have been prevented had a well promoted student tip-line been in place. Today, No Child Left Behind encourages schools to adopt an anonymous student reporting procedure. Still, many school districts are reluctant to implement such programs. The reasons come down to an overwhelming lack of understanding about the costs, benefits, and liabilities of having such a program. By way of example, we recently encountered a school board attorney who, in a recorded public meeting, stated that he has advised the Superintendent to destroy (“trash”) any anonymous letter or other anonymous correspondence received by the school district. The attorney stated, “If the person doesn’t have the nerve to say who they are, why should anyone believe them”. This attorney unwittingly placed the school district in a position of extreme liability – publicly! Clearly, this attorney has missed what school security and law enforcement experts across the country have discovered. That is, that anonymous is big with students and that students have used tip-lines to save their own or the lives of other students. Moreover, that tip-lines have become a “best practice” in the fast changing realm of school security.

Tip-lines too have evolved over the years. They have gone from the basic operator answered toll-free phone service to sophistated Web-based programs. Before we began the ChooseToCare program, now the most widely used student based tip-line in Texas, we conducted focus groups with students to find out what type of tip line process kids would most likely use. Students told us they would prefer a Web-based process that ensured their privacy and provided more anonymity than phone based services (your phone number appears on the service’s phone bill). What did students find most attractive about the Web-based process? Ironically, it was the impersonal nature of the Web that attracted them. That they didn’t necessarily have to speak to a live operator was the single most attractive aspect of the Web process. This was especially true with female students who said they would be reluctant to speak to a stranger about matters of a “sensitive”, perhaps sexual nature.

ChooseToCare offers students, parents and the community with options for making their report. A toll-free number is available, but seldom used. About 95% of all information destined for participating school districts comes in through the Web. Regardless of how the report is submitted, ChooseToCare users may identify themselves or remain truly anonymous. When a user decides to let ChooseToCare know their identity but not the school district, CTC acts as an intermediary between the district and the informant. ChooseToCare does not replace a school district’s existing and traditional ways of communicating with students and parents, but rather supplements them as part of layering-on process.

One thing is certain, for better or worse, the Internet has become a preferred way to communicate for many people. If you are considering a school safety tip-line for your community, choose on that provides the most options for potential users. Be certain that the process is secure server based and SSL protected. Avoid systems that send your sensitive information by email – it is just not secure. Last, be sure your tip line process is school specific and deals with issues like bullying, gender orientation discrimination, sexual harassment, and other behavioral issues that confront students every day. These are behaviors that students won’t report to some of the “crime based” tip-lines that some schools use today. To inquire about how your school district can become a ChooseToCare participant please call us at 940-891-1919.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Tipping the Scales in Favor of Student Safety

“Is drug use prevalent in your school, ” I asked. “Yeah, what else is there to do in this town, “ she replied. Her response caught me off guard. “This town,” as she described it, was my town too.

“What would you do if you knew about something happening at school that could harm you or someone you know – I mean, who would you tell?”

“I’m not really sure what I would do, or who I would tell,” she said. “It’s risky, you know. They see you coming out of someone’s office, or the person you go to tells someone else, and then its all over. I don’t know. I don’t think I would take that chance. No one really wants to be known that way, if you know what I mean.”

“What if there was a way to tell what you know anonymously? Would that make a difference?” “Yeah, I think it would”, she said. “For me anyway.”

I was not “interviewing” her. Although, after a while I suppose she felt that way. She was a junior at a local high school and a hostess at my favorite restaurant. She just happened to be in view when I was talkative and had work on my mind.

How many other students feel this way is up for speculation. Having administered “tip-line” programs for corporations for over two decades, I am comfortable drawing on my private sector experience. The vast majority of people who use tip-lines to report serious workplace issues, do so anonymously. The general exceptions, of course, are the persons who report issues where they, themselves, are the victims. In many cases, the person who initially made the anonymous report will identify themselves once they have become more comfortable with the investigative process. When they do, I have made it my practice to ask them why they chose to be anonymous. Consistently, their answers point to two things. First, is the fear that others will know they have come forward. This, stemming from a lack of trust that the traditional reporting processes available to them will ultimately protect their confidentiality. And last, is the fear of embarrassment if the information they provide proves to be wrong.

The age distribution of corporate tip-line users varies from persons in their mid-teens to older adults. But I dare say that the sentiments and concerns most frequently expressed within the population of corporate users likely reside in an even more significant fashion among students today. The root of these sentiments being a struggle to trust, and the fear of being perceived negatively by their peers.

I have encountered more than a few educators who would minimize the potential impact these issues might have on students and their willingness to report critical and sensitive information. Some, I believe, perceive that the promotion of an anonymous method of reporting known or suspected student safety issues implies a failure to achieve a desired level of trust between students and educators. Others perhaps feel that the promotion of such a process may compromise the level of trust already in place.

Truly reaching students is a personal and professional goal for every educator. The recognition that not every student will trust the system enough to come forward with safety information, even when critical to saving lives, is both difficult to accept and disheartening. In some cases I have encountered a sentiment of abject rejection by certain school administrators for any information provided anonymously. When this sentiment manifests itself in practice, it is dangerous and places the safety of students and others at risk.

The truth is that anonymous tip-lines need not conflict with a school’s existing and more traditional student resources. They are incremental and should be part of a “layering on” process during which administrators take the opportunity to re-enforce established resources for reporting student safety issues. Students should be encouraged to seek help from teachers, counselors, and Student Resource Officers first, and from secondary resources when necessary. Moreover, tip-lines should not be limited to student use. School districts that install tip-lines are encouraged to promote them for the use of the entire school community, to include parents, teachers, volunteers, bus drivers, clericals, cafeteria workers, and others. To properly ensure anonymity, tip-lines should be administered by a reputable third party agency experienced in tip-line implementation and administration. Tip-lines administered from within the school district (such as e-mail based programs sometimes linked to a district’s Web site) invite compromise and potential liability.

We have learned that there is likely a portion of most student populations that will not use traditional resources to report information they suspect or know. Columbine showed us that. Most importantly, schools must take aggressive steps to build awareness among students and others for the types of behaviors that potentially place them at risk. Character education, now required for schools by many states, can help address this need. In this context, tip-lines can play a part in proactively reaching those members of the school community who may be reluctant to use traditional resources, for whatever reason. The first step is to recognize that they exist!

Bill Dolphin is a veteran security consultant with Texas based Asset Control, Inc., and co-developer of ChooseToCare, a Web-based student tip-line program. ChooseToCare can be accessed through the Web at