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By Jon Bonné
msnbc.com
updated 1/21/2004 6:41:02 PM ET 2004-01-21T23:41:02

Most companies now conduct criminal background checks on potential employees, according to a recent survey. A sharp increase in this practice during the past few years reflects both corporate America's heightened security concerns after Sept. 11 and the growing public availability of personal information.

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A report from the Society for Human Resource Management shows that 80 percent of companies said they run a criminal check on applicants before hiring, up nearly 30 percent from 1996 -– making the practice as common as checking references or prior work histories.

“It’s a balance that the public is dealing with in national security, homeland security,” said Susan Meisinger, the society’s president and CEO. “Everybody’s feeling more vulnerable.”

Large firms were the most likely to run criminal checks, but nearly 70 percent of small companies also said they checked on a potential hire’s criminal history.

Many companies also relied on additional background reporting. More than half verify education records and nearly half check motor vehicle records, according to the survey of 270 companies. And 35 percent run credit checks on possible new hires, up from 19 percent in 1996.

Sept. 11 clearly triggered many new concerns among employers. More than a third said they grew more concerned about workplace security after the terror attacks.

But Meisinger said the growing concerns also stemmed from recent cases of public figures who lost their jobs after being caught telling untruths -- cases like that of Notre Dame football coach George O'Leary, who quit in 2001 after lying about his background.

“If you’re in HR and you have that happen to you a couple times, you become very jaded and say, ‘You know what? I’m checking them all,’” she said.

Ease of access
Technology also has streamlined the process for employers. Legal and financial records are now maintained electronically, data-mining companies have amassed information on millions of Americans and background checks are now easy to order online for just a few dollars.

At data firm ChoicePoint, which provides online and offline services to many large companies, 70 percent of customers now request national criminal background checks. While even local criminal checks used to be time consuming, often requiring trips to the courthouse, electronic databases provide the desired information in moments. That in turn has helped address companies’ growing concerns about their hiring processes.

James Lee, ChoicePoint’s chief marketing officer, said the growth has occurred across all business sectors, with retailers as likely to run checks as professional service firms -– and the checks becoming a routine part of the hiring process.

“Whereas five years ago they would only check the records of certain applicants, now they’ll check every applicant,” said Lee. “They’re looking broader and deeper.”

Of 8 million criminal checks run by ChoicePoint’s services in the past 7 years, Lee said, 9 percent have turned up felony convictions not disclosed by applicants.

How much information?
For employees with nothing to hide, though, concerns may linger about how all this information is being used by companies.

There are some protections for workers.  The Fair Credit Reporting Act requires companies to notify applicants if a bad credit report has factored into a decision not to hire. Companies must tell applicants what types of checks it plans to conduct and often make clear on their application forms that any false information could lead to a worker being fired.

But employees also have few guarantees they can ultimately find out exactly what ends up in their files. Employers aren’t required to tell applicants who get hired what checks have been run.

And the FCRA definition of a consumer report is extremely broad, said Tena Friery, research director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, including information not just on credit standing but on “character, general reputation, personal characteristics, or mode of living.” It can be hard to gauge the precise use of such information in hiring processes that are almost always fundamentally subjective.

“That information may be used in a way that’s not directly related to handling money,” Friery said. “There should be some nexus, some relationship between the information that’s being gathered and the position.”

Despite worries about security, the number of violent incidents hasn’t increased, at least according to the survey. Actually, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, violent crime in the workplace dropped 44 percent from 1993 to 1999, the most recent year for which data is available.

In the SHRM survey, reports of most types of workplace violence remained the same or dropped, and the most common -– verbal threats -– dropped significantly.  Still, a third of employers reported threats had occurred.

Workers worry
When violence was reported, it was most often between coworkers, followed by employees threatening or assaulting their supervisors. Personality conflicts were the most cited reason. Perpetrators were usually male; victims were more often female.

But many security measures are actually driven by employee requests, Meisinger said. Awareness of violent incidents -– including high-profile office shootings covered in national media -– has increased, and many offices now have contractors and vendors who regularly work on-site.

“Employees have said, ‘You know, I’m a little bit more nervous now because there are people walking around whom I don’t know,” she said.

Several indicators of heightened security concerns have emerged, according to the survey:

  • 80 percent of companies said they now have security systems that limit access to their buildings, up 13 percent in the past 8 years. Of those who didn’t, nearly half said it was because their businesses were open to the public.
  • 70 percent said they escort terminated or laid-off employees from the premises, though just over 40 percent actually have written policies for how terminations should be conducted.
  • Over half said they now provide post-incident counseling for employees not actually involved in the specific violence, up from 30 percent just five years ago.
  • Still, about one-third of companies lack a zero-tolerance policy – one that forces managers to immediately fire any employee who acts violently – and less than half have zero-tolerance policies for threats of violence.

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