Tag Archives: Best Practices

The Basics of Education Verifications

By Lester Rosen, President of Employment Screening Resources (ESR)

Educational credentials can be an important part of an employer’s decision making process in hiring. Educational achievement tells an employer a great deal about an applicant’s ability, qualifications, and motivation. Many employers feel that educational qualifications are a critical factor in predicting success on the job. For many positions, education is a prerequisite in terms of subject matter knowledge or for obtaining the appropriate license for the position. 

Surveys suggest that as many as 30% of all job applicants falsify information about their educational backgrounds. The falsifications can include outright fabrications such as making up degrees from legitimate schools the applicant never attended or valueless degrees from diploma mills.

An applicant can also falsify his or her educational achievements based upon some semblance of fact, such as claiming degrees from schools the applicant actually attended but did not obtain the degree claimed. Typically a candidate turns their months or weeks of attendance into an AA degree, or claims a BA or an advanced degree even if they did not complete the course work or fulfill all graduation requirements.

Colleges and universities also have a vested interest in confirming educational accomplishments. Confirming an applicant received a degree from their school helps their graduates and promotes the reputation of their school. Conversely, uncovering the fraudulent use of the school’s good name helps to preserve and protect the school’s reputation.

Background firms verify education in the U.S. in two ways. One way is to contact the school, usually through the registar’s office. Before doing that, however, a competent background firm will first run the name of the school against various databases to ensure that the school is legitimate and accredited, and not a phony degree mill. A number of schools will require a written release or a fee, which can delay the verification. Delays can also occur because schools operate on an academic schedule, which can mean the administrative offices are closed during holidays and the summer months.

The other options available to screening firms and employers are online services that have contracts with schools to gather degree information from schools, thus acting as the schools’ agents.

For some job applicants, getting a college diploma apparently no longer requires years of hard work, taking tests, paying tuition or even reading a book. Why bother going through the formalities when all a person needs is a credit card and a web browser in order to buy an authentic looking diploma that mimics real colleges, universities and even high schools across the U.S.? Go to any search engine and run keywords such as “Fake Diploma” and anyone can instantly “graduate” from nearly any school in America with a very handsome and authentic looking diploma suitable for hanging. 

One such website advertises that it creates “very realistic diplomas/transcripts. These diplomas/ transcripts are extremely high quality printed on official parchment quality paper. You can show your employer and they will never doubt that you indeed attended college. You will not find better quality anywhere!!!” 

Some of these sites “officially” caution that the diplomas and transcripts are intended for “Novelty and Entertainment Use Only.” However, the fake documents you receive do not have a disclaimer written any place on them. When presented with a physical diploma or transcripts, employers should fax a copy to the school to confirm its authenticity. Most background firms can tell stories of faxing copies of degrees, supplied by the applicant, to high schools and colleges only to be told the degree is a fake. 

Verifying high school education can present particular problems, due to the fact that there are so many high schools, and the fact they operate on an academic schedule. The most difficult degree to verify is typically a GED, since it requires additional time and effort to track down the office that has the information. 

Adding to the challenge is that some degree mills and fake online schools have even created fake accreditation agencies to falsely vouch for the fake schools. In the U.S. schools are generally accredited by private organizations, that are recognized as legitimate accreditors by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) found at http://www.chea.org. The U.S. government, in response to these issues, has created a web site where employers can look up a school to determine if and how it is accredited. The U.S. Department of Education has created The Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutuions and Programs which provides searches of schools by accreditation agency. The web site is available at: http://www.ope.ed.gov/accreditation/

ESR goes through an extensive procedure to verify that a school is legitimate.  First, ESR compares the schools to schools that are known to be legitimate.  If the school does not pass that test, ESR examines numerous “diploma mill” lists. However, those lists are a moving target since new diploma mills can be easily created.  If a school is not on either list, ESR then carefully reviews the schools web site and in particular, looks to see what “accreditation” the school claims.

The problems with degree mills, however, should not be confused with legitimate vocational or trade schools. Each state has an agency in charge of certifying state-approved educational programs. If there are questions about the legitimacy of a vocational or trade school, then an employer should contact the appropriate authority in their state. There are numerous distance learning programs available on the internet as well. An employer should evaluate the program to determine if it has relevance to the job.

The bottom-line is that employers should not take educational accomplishments at face value without ensuring that the applicant actually has obtained the degree, and that the degree is from a legitimate educational institution. For more information, contact Employment Screening Resources (ESR) at http://www.ESRcheck.com.

Employment Screening Background Checks Annual Criminal Statistics

Various organizations publish their annual criminal “hit rates,” showing how many applicants subject to background screening had criminal records or other discrepancies. On one hand, these figures are extremely valuable because they confirm an already compelling case that background checks are critical for any employer that wants to exercise due diligence and protect its workforce and the public. In fact, as Employment Screening Resources has been advising employers for sometime, without a system of pre-employment screening, it is a virtual statistical certainty that an employer will hire someone with a serious issue that has the potential to create a legal and financial nightmare or cause workplace violence.

On the other hand, as with all statistics, these yearly reports need to be taken with a grain of salt. First, not all criminal records come as a surprise to employers. Given the number of Americans with some sort of criminal records, many employers are still willing to hire someone for an appropriate position, providing the applicant was not dishonest in the application. In fact, certain industries by nature of their workforce are more likely to draw upon a pool of potential applicants that may tend to have higher levels of past criminal conduct. Examples might be construction or firms that provide employment for entry level workers.

A statistic that would be very interesting but much harder to obtain is how many criminal records were discovered where the applicant was dishonest about past conduct. Of course, that gets complicated by the fact that an applicant may have been genuinely confused about what is or is not reportable on an application.

A related issue is that not all criminal records have the same impact. A criminal record for underage drinking is not in the same league as a conviction for armed robbery.

In reviewing these types of statistics, employers also need to keep in mind that not all of the criminal records located are job related. Employers should NOT automatically deny employment to an applicant with a criminal record unless there is a business justification that takes into account the nature and gravity of the crime, the nature of the job and the age of the crime. As noted in a recent blog on this site, the EEOC takes the position that the overuse of criminal records without a business justification can create a disparate impact, and therefore can be discriminatory. See: http://www.esrcheck.com/wordpress/1057/new-eeoc-lawsuit-for-discrimination-based-on-credit-report-and-criminal-records

Finally, it is difficult to draw firm conclusions from the statistics without knowing the search methodology. Depending on how the searches were conducted, it is entirely possible in fact that such annual statistics may even understate the number of criminal records applicants had. The most accurate criminal record searches are done by accessing information directly from the county courthouse level, either by physically going the court, or by use of the court computer system that is the functional equivalent of going to the courthouse. That is the method used by Employment Screening Resources. Databases on the other hand, although much wider in scope, are not nearly as accurate, do not have all courts or jurisdiction, may not be updated, or may not contain sufficient identifiers.  To the extent any searching was done by the use of databases, the numbers could potentially be understated.

The bottom line: These statistics are an excellent reminder that employers need to be careful in hiring. However, as with most statistics, there is more to the story. Contact Employment Screening Resources for additional information.

Why Background Firms should not contact an applicant directly

Some employers or recruiters want background firms to contact an applicant directly if there is a need to obtain additional information or to clarify information from an applicant.  If this has ever crossed your mind as an employer or recruiter, you might want to reconsider. 

Employment Screening Resources (ESR) generally recommends against having background firms getting in the middle of that special relationship between the Recruiter and the Applicant.  It creates confusion, causes delays, and brings a background screening firm into discussions with the applicant  who may not even realize that a third party is involved.

From many years of experience, ESR knows that background checks actually go much faster where the recruiter exclusively manages the direct applicant relationship and obtains additional information when needed. 

This issue of applicant contact can come up in a number of ways.

First, if a recruiter is submitting faxed orders instead of using the ESR online solutions, recruiters must understand the process can be delayed if orders are sent that are illegible or incomplete. For example, screening firms often face difficulty in deciphering an applicants handwriting as to past employers or a Social Security Number. An eight and a three can easily look alike.  Since a screening firm is not expected to read hieroglyphics or be a mind reader, the screening firm has to contact the recruiter to clarify the information. Some screening firms will make their best guess and if they are wrong, the report is delayed even further, proving the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished.  Recruiters who review all applications for completeness, legibility and accuracy with the candidates before sending the applications to a screening firm will find their report is completed much faster.

Another example is an incomplete employment verification because the past employer has moved, merged, or gone out of business.  If the recruiter still needs that to be verified, then someone needs to contact the applicant and ask for things such as W-2’s, or names of past supervisors.  There are some recruiters who ask their background firm to do this, even though it is the recruiter that has most knowledge about the applicant and has direct contact.

There are a number of complications that arise if the screening firm attempts to contact the applicant. 

1.  The applicant does not know the background firm, and is naturally reluctant to supply a Social Security Number or date of birth to a stranger over the phone, or send pay stubs to someone they do not know.  That typically means the applicant will normally call the recruiter first anyway to find out what the situation is all about, which, of course, delays the screening process further.

2. The background firm often has to engage in phone tag, requiring back and forth before the screening firm can connect with the applicant.  Since the applicant has no relationship with the screening firm, an applicant does not always realize it is important to call back, especially if the applicant is looking at several different job offers.  On the other hand, if a recruiter is in hot pursuit of an applicant, or the applicant is focused on getting the job, it is likely that the recruiter will have a great deal less difficulty getting in touch with him/her to obtain the additional information or clarification. 

3.  The third issue is tracking.  The screening firm needs to track the status of the additional calls to the applicants and to deal with multiple applicants instead of a single point of contact.  Recruiters presumably already have an ATS or some other system to keep tabs on the progress of each job and each finalist (since typically only a finalist is getting screened). 

4.  The last and most important issue is when a screening firm calls the applicant, an applicant may now believe that the background firm is somehow involved in the hiring decision.  There have been applicants who have wanted to continue selling themselves to a background firm’s clerical employee, whose only mission was to obtain some missing information and who knows nothing about the job.  Or, if the applicant somehow feels that background employee did not give them the attention he or she deserved, the applicant may be left with a negative impression of the potential employer or complain about the contact.

For these reasons, many background firms typically prefer not to get themselves in the middle of the relationship between the recruiter and the applicant.

New EEOC lawsuit for discrimination based on credit report and criminal records

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced  on October 1, 2009 that they have filed a lawsuit against Freeman, a firm that offers nationwide convention services, on the basis that it used credit reports and criminal records to unfairly discriminate against black, Hispanic and male  job applicants.    This case has the potential to have a profound impact on the way employers hire in the U.S.

According to the EEOC press release the lawsuit charged that, “This practice has an unlawful discriminatory impact because of race, national origin and sex, and is neither job-related nor justified by business necessity.”

Even though the use of criminal records and credit history does not directly target people   protected by civil rights laws, the argument is that when those criteria were applied to Freeman applicants, the end result was that greater numbers of blacks, Hispanics and males were affected.  This is referred to as a “disparate impact.”  In other words, by using this information to make hiring decisions, the practical impact was that members of protected groups were unfairly treated and rejected in higher numbers.   

The EEOC has been active in identifying barriers that contribute to discrimination     In 2007, the EEOC launched the “E-RACE” (Eradicating Racism and Colorism from Employment) Initiative. The purpose was to “improve EEOC’s efforts to ensure workplaces are free of race and color discrimination.” http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/initiatives/e-race/index.cfm

The use of credit reports and criminal records being used to deny employment has been hot-button issues for the EEOC.  The last significant case was El. v. Septa, 479 F.3D 232 (3d. Cir. 2007), where a 40 year-old second degree murder conviction was allowed to be used to deny employment.  However, part of the decision was based upon the fact that the applicant that was suing for discrimination did not present any statistical evidence to rebut expert testimony by the employer that even a 40 year old crime can be relevant.  The company had a “bright-line” policy of rejecting applicants with convictions for violence. 

Since then, a study was conducted by Professor Alfred Blumstein at Carnegie Mellon University that suggested that after a period of as little as five years for some crimes, a person with a criminal record was no more likely to re-offend then a person with no criminal record.   Ironically, the same professor was the expert in the El v. Septa  matter where a 40 year old murder was sufficient to deny employment .

ESR has written an in-depth analysis of the Blumstein study at:   http://www.esrcheck.com/Blumstein-and-Nakamura-study-on-redemption-in-Criminology.php”>http://www.esrcheck.com/Blumstein-and-Nakamura-study-on-redemption-in-Criminology.php

This case will not likely be finalized anytime soon and could well need to go to higher courts for a final resolution.  However, the case is a stark reminder that employers need to review their hiring practices, to ensure that any pre-employment assessment tool is both a valid predictor and job performance and not discriminatory. 

In the case of criminal records, Employment Screening Resources (ESR) has long advised employers that they should NOT automatically reject an applicant with a criminal record, but should instead determine if there is a business necessity that precludes hiring.  The EEOC has suggested that employers take into account the nature and gravity of the crime, the nature of the job, and the age of the offense.  Similarly, ESR has also long advised employers that credit reports should be approached with caution, and only used where relevant to the job, such as positions involving access to cash, assets or fiduciary duties.

fake references and employment screening background checks

From the mailbox:  What are the risks for an applicant in providing a fake reference.  I even hear there are web sites that will give you a fake reference that look real and they even create a web site for the fake company.  In a tough job market, why not? 

Response from  ESR:  The old saying that honesty is the best policy is more then just good advice for a job seeker, it can mean the difference between getting a great job or having your career  get permanently smirched. 

First, the chance of even pulling of a fake reference is getting much more difficult.  Statistics show that most employers routinely contact past employers either themselves or through a background firm.  A good background firm will typically independently establish if the past employer even existed, and locate a phone number independently of whatever number an applicant puts on their resume.  A screening firm may not simply call the name and number provided by the applicant. Employment Screening Resources, for example, goes through an extensive procedure to verify that each past employer is legitimate and does not accept the applicant provided phone number.

Even if the fake reference somehow survives the vetting process, it is hard to keep and live a lie, especially when you never know when the truth may come out.  For example, a supervisor or co-worker may meet someone in your industry that somehow spills the beans. Furthermore, if a person gets a position they cannot actually perform due to a fake reference, it is just a matter of time before they get a negative performance appraisal. 

In addition, co-workers that suspect a fraud have also been known to do their own digging. Furthermore, most employers have employment applications that clearly state that if a person has lied during the application process, it is grounds for termination no matter when discovered.  There is now statistical evidence suggesting that if a person is dishonest in the way they get the job, they the will likely be dishonest once in the job. Once a fabrication is discovered, the resulting termination and the inability to use the most recent employment on your resume can leave a big unexplained employment gap and impact future job searches.

Certainly, applicants have the right to put their best foot forwards, and to cast themselves in the best possible light. But when the resumes goes beyond mere puffing into lies, fiction and fabrication, the long lasting damage to your career,  the emotional energy required to live a lie and the damage to your personal integrity  is just not worth it.

Due diligence risk management and Employment Screening

In the April, 2009 ESR Newsletter, ESR reported on a case in Ohio where a negligent hiring lawsuit was filed on behalf of a sleep clinic patient that was sexually molested by a staff member.  http://www.esrcheck.com/newsletter/archives/April_2009.php.  The article reported that a technician was facing gross sexual imposition and sexual imposition charges for allegedly molesting five victims.  The lawsuit “accuses the sleep clinic of negligence for hiring (the worker) and failing to properly supervise him.”  

Another sleep clinic case, this time from California is now in the news.  According to a story in the Monterey County Herald, a sleep technician was accused of sexual misconduct and the case eventually resulted in a no contest plea to a battery charge.  The case even lead to a new law in California that regulated workers in sleep clinics and required them to pass background check.  See:  http://www.montereyherald.com/local/ci_13864096 

These stories demonstrate a fundamental fact of life for employers. In deciding how extensively to perform background screening, employers need to consider the risks involved.  Patients in a medical facility are highly vulnerable and therefore at greater risk. Presumably, patients at a sleep clinic are even more vulnerable since they are there to sleep.

Examples where employers may have an increased duty of care are: 

  • The workers have contact or responsibilities with groups at risk, such as the young, infirmed, or elderly.
  • Jobs such as a security guard, where a person acts under a “color of authority.”  A person who wears a uniform is even a higher risk since a person may assume they have authority and may let their guard down. 
  • Jobs with special responsibilities such as an apartment manager that has the master key to all of the apartments.
  • Jobs where a worker has access to sensitive consumer information, such as credit card numbers or Social Security numbers.
  • Jobs where by statute, there is particular sensitivity.  An example can be safety sensitive positions such as workers at nuclear plants.  Sarbanes-Oxley compliance is another area where that may create a higher duty of care.
  • Jobs where workers enter homes, or where other unique risks exist.  A person in their own home can be extremely vulnerable since they are shielded from the public and cannot obtain help easily.  In fact, an organization called the Sue Weaver Cause advocates greater due diligence where workers enter homes.  According to their website:
    “August 27, 2001, Sue Weaver was brutally raped and beaten to death by a twice convicted sex-offender hired to do service work in her home. Sue had contracted with a major department store to have the air ducts in her home cleaned.  (The department store) did not conduct criminal background checks on those workers they sent into their clients’ homes.”   For more information, see:  http://www.sueweavercause.org/  

To review the risk management considerations for your screening program, contact Jared Callahan at 415-898-0044 or e-mail him at jcallahan@esrcheck.com

Workplace violence and employment screening background checks

An excellent article on how employers can deal with workplace has appeared in the Coshocton Tribune in Ohio.  It was written by Ohio human resources consultant Jim Evans is president of JK Evans & Associates LLC, a Zanesville-based human resources consulting firm. 

The article recounted some recent incidents of workplace violence and reminded employers and managers that they are tools to prevent and deal with workplace violence.  For example, employers should have policies on how to deal with workplace misconduct, and managers should be trained to recognize the warning signs and how to deal with it.  The article also cites due diligent in hiring as an important tool to avoid bad hires and to demonstrate due diligence in hiring.  See: http://www.coshoctontribune.com/article/20091115/NEWS04/911150313 

This article underscores the critical role of pre-employment background screening plays in the hiring process.  For employers, there are a number of resources available to accomplish employment screening.  Setting up a program is very quick and easy, and the cost is minimal compared to just one workplace incident.  As a general rule, screening employees cost less then their first day salary.  In fact, an employer can provide a great deal of protection just by a well designed application, interview and past employment checking process. 

For job applicants, background checks are NOT an invasion of privacy.  The items being checked are what a person has done in their public life, such as where they worked, where they went to school or if there are relevant criminal records. Applicants also have a great deal of rights under federal law to view any report and to correct errors, and must give their specific consent and be advised of their rights.  There are rules about using criminal records unfairly. 

The bottom-line is that workers also want the protection of a safe workplace with qualified co-workers that have the credentials claimed.  More information on how to conduct employment screening and available resources is available at www.ESRcheck.com. A specific game plan for hiring is set out at: http://www.esrcheck.com/wordpress/730/cost-effective-employment-screening-and-safe-hiring-techniques-for-large-employers.

Screening Vendors and Temporary Workers

A recent article in the SHRM 2008 Staffing Management Library underscores the need to screen even temporary hires.  Although many employers have well thought-out programs for their regular employees, temporary employees from staffing firms, 1099 workers or vendors pose similar risks.  The article explained why screening temporary employees is critical, and offers suggestions on how a firm can protect itself.

The article also quotes ESR President Lester S. Rosen: 

“Even if you have a person on a short-term assignment, you’re exposed,” added attorney Lester S. Rosen, president and CEO of the Novato, Calif.-based firm Employment Screening Resources. “They have the keys to the kingdom. Once they’re inside your building, they have access to your files and have the potential to do great harm.”

Rosen said that while staffing vendors “have traditionally not engaged in a great deal of screening because it slows down the placement time and adds to the cost,” they need to understand that they have “a huge risk” if they send unscreened employees to a workplace.

“They have to realize that every placement they make is potentially a game of Russian Roulette that can put them out of business,” he explained. “If you’re a staffing vendor, it only takes one bad hire to lose your reputation, lose a client and [potentially to] get sued.”

And even though an extended worker may be getting a paycheck from the staffing vendor, under “co-employment” law, employers may still be at risk of a negligent hiring suit if something goes wrong.

“If [temporary employees] cause a hostile workplace, hurt a member of the public or attack a co-worker, arguably employers are just as liable as they would be if this were a full-time, regular employee,” Rosen said.

The fact that the staffing vendor said it did background checks may not be much of a defense for an employer if the check was inadequate or ineffective. For this reason, it pays to do adequate due diligence to head off any potential lawsuits down the road.

After all, Rosen said, “Even the CIA will, every so often, hire a spy or a crook.”

The article discusses the need to evaluate the risks involved in utilizing an extended workforce and to develop an appropriate screening program.  The screening may be performed by the same firm that checks new applicants.  If done by the staffing vendor’s firm, then the employer can require that the same protocols be used that it uses internally. 

For a full copy of the article, see http://www.shrm.org/ema/library_published/nonIC/CMS_024438.asp#TopOfPage

The Basics of Criminal Records Searches

Searching for criminal records is much more complicated than it appears on the surface.  Contrary to popular belief, there is no central database available to most private employers to instantly find a person’s criminal record at one touch.  The FBI database is only available to employers that are legally authorized to submit fingerprints, the readouts can be complex and there is even the possibility of errors in those records.  With some 3200 counties in the US, screening firms have developed tools and techniques to identify potentially relevant counties to search, and nearly any county in America can be researched on site within 24-36 hours. The best practices for employers are to identify counties associated with the applicant and to search those counties by going to the courthouse. The way relevant counties are identified is first by using a tool called a social security trace that uses millions of records which show what addresses a social security number is related to. In addition, some employers also search counties where a person has worked or gone to school.  Although such searches are very accurate, as with anything depending on human beings, there is still some small margin of error possible. 

Even assuming a record is found, a professional screening firm must determine if there are sufficient identifiers to associate the record to the applicant, and even if the criminal record belongs to the applicant, numerous states have laws that restrict what can be reported. Many states do not allow the use of arrest records, and even if a state allows it, there may be EEOC considerations. Even if a screening firm can report a conviction, the employer needs to consider whether the use of the record is discriminatory.  An employer should not automatically reject an applicant with a criminal record, unless there is a business justification, taking into account such things as the nature and gravity of the act, the nature of the job and the age of the crime. 

Employers should be careful in the use of commercial databases that are advertised to search millions of records with instant results.  Those 30 second searches are NOT a substitute for a real criminal check at a courthouse and probably would not demonstrate due diligence if used all by themselves. These databases are assembled from a hodgepodge of various sources that are willing to make their data public or to sell data, such as incarceration systems, state repositories or individual counties.  These databases do not cover all states and may not be up-to-date, accurate or complete.  Certain states do not provide date of birth, which is another reason a criminal record may not come up in a database. This can all lead to both false negative and false positive results from databases. A false positive means a person is branded a criminal who is not, and a false negative means a person with a criminal record is falsely ‘cleared.’ 

The commercially available instant criminal reports are best used as a research tool only by a professional screening firm to locate other places to search.  Since they cover such a wide area, they can be very valuable in locating records that a county by county search can miss.  However, these instant databases are also a potential source of litigation against employers and screening firms, with applicants filing lawsuits for being unfairly tarnished as criminal, or victims claiming that the employer did not exercise due diligence.  Even if there is a database ‘hit,’ under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, the background screening firm must either reconfirm the details at the actual courthouse to ensure accuracy, or send a contemporaneous notice to the applicant at the same time, so they know that they are the subject of negative public records.  California is one state where any database ‘hit’ must be re-confirmed at the courthouse and ESR believes it is a best practice to reconfirm all database hits at he courthouse to guard against unfairly labeling someone as a criminal where their case has been dismissed, or they are the victim of identity theft or just happen to have the same last name as a perosn with a criminal record. 

Some states offer access to the state police or central state court databases.  Again, it takes a background screening expert to understand the value of such information on a state by state basis.  There is also a difference between state court searches and federal courts. 

All of this is just the tip of the iceberg.  For more details, see: http://www.esrcheck.com/services/services_detail.php

Court Case on Use of Social Networking Sites

As ESR has noted in numerous presentations on the use of social networking sites, such as Facebook or MySpace for employment, this is an evolving area of law that is still waiting for lawsuits to wind their ways through courts resulting in published judicial opinions. Continue reading