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New Strategies for Screening Job Candidates

Jeff Cronrod

Hiring managers today face more challenges in vetting job candidates than
detectives on “Law and Order” trying to uncover the truth in their latest
case. At least three resumes out of 10 are estimated to contain
falsehoods ranging from exaggerated job responsibilities to phony
credentials and even fabricated jobs. Many jobseekers have criminal
records, bad credit histories, workers compensation claims or other
baggage that is unlikely to come out in a job interview. And in this
post-September 11 era, there is always the possibility that a terrorist may
be lurking somewhere in the hiring pool.

Many organizations are responding to these grim realities by tightening
tried-and-true pre-employment screening processes as well as adding new
strategies for digging into prospects’ pasts. Soup-to-nuts background
checks that once were considered a nuisance and unnecessary expense
are now becoming standard operating procedure. Companies of all kinds
have stepped up their efforts to avoid unwittingly unrolling the corporate
welcome mat to applicants who may become an embarrassment — or

There is ample reason for concern. Last summer, for example, a
suburban Chicago school discovered that its principal had served federal
prison time for financial fraud. The man’s 1996 felony conviction for
fleecing AT&T in Milwaukee in a payroll alteration scheme had not shown
up in criminal background checks, in part because the two school systems
that employed him had failed to look for criminal records outside Illinois.
His misdeeds caught up with him only when he violated the terms of his

A few years ago, a Silicon Valley firm suffered a similar shock after hiring a
new vice president whose resume boasted a Ph.D. in engineering and a
prestigious appointment to a task force on Internet security. An
anonymous tip caused the company to double-check the claims. It turned
out that the task force did not exist, the “Ph.D.” was from an online diploma
mill, and the “doctor” did not even have a bachelors degree.2

Then there’s short-lived Notre Dame football coach George O’Leary, who
resigned after just five days on the job when he was caught in two lies
concerning a non-existent masters degree and three football letters he
never won.3 And the late James Baughman, one-time director of
recruitment for Lucent Technologies, who would never have gotten the job
if Lucent had known that he served time for embezzling money as a
California high school principal and also lied about earning a doctorate
from Stanford.4

These kinds of hiring mistakes can be prevented by applying some extra
shoe leather to the pre-employment screening process. Here are some
new and/or improved tools and techniques that are helping HR
professionals leave no stone unturned in determining which candidates
are — and are not — fit for employment.

National address trace

Arguably the most important new arrow in the hiring manager’s quiver, this
tool is gaining popularity because of its ability to improve the thoroughness
of criminal background searches. It involves surveying a series of national
databases — typically the three major credit bureaus and U.S. Postal
Service records, and sometimes others — to assemble an address history
on a given applicant. The results provide a road map to the local
jurisdictions that should be searched for possible criminal histories or any
other information that might call an applicant’s suitability or trustworthiness
into question.

This new breed of address verification is important for two related
reasons. First, even if an employer asks for prior addresses, the applicant
may inadvertently fail to provide a thorough list. Second, jobseekers with
skeletons in their closet may deliberately withhold addresses that will point
screeners to incriminating records. In both cases, a national address
trace will fill in the gaps.

10-year residence history form

Companies have always asked prospective new employees for a list of
prior addresses, but a few years of data was usually regarded as
sufficient. Now, even with the move to automated national address traces,
it is considered advisable to request that applicants voluntarily supply a
decade’s worth of domiciles. Any inconsistencies between the two sets of
addresses will raise a red flag that may help unearth a problematic past.

The availability of a longer address history also takes advantage of
changes in criminal databases. While public records used to date back no
more than seven years, many searches now retrieve information that is 10,
15 or even 20 years old. The longer the address trail, the greater the
chance of discovering an offense that might otherwise be overlooked.

Hybrid county/state/national criminal records searches

Standard pre-employment criminal background checks used to be limited
to manual searches in the applicant’s county of residence and/or
employment, largely because organizations did not see the value in paying
for more extensive electronic searches. In the wake of September 11 and
the adverse publicity frequently unleashed when an employee’s past
transgressions come to light, hiring managers are recognizing that a
combination of county, state and national research is necessary to fulfill
their due diligence obligations.

County records are fresher and more comprehensive in some respects
than broader databases (they contain both felonies and misdemeanors,
for example, while state records vary), but they are limited to crimes
committed within that county’s boundaries. State and national databases
lack up-to-dateness and the breadth of detail but they provide the
necessary geographic coverage, particularly when used in tandem.

One company learned the benefit of a combined state/national
examination quite by accident when the hiring director unintentionally
requested a national search on an applicant who had reported living in
Florida, California and New York. The state searches yielded nothing, but
the national search returned a hit indicating that the candidate had
committed an armed robbery in Arizona. Without checking the national
database, that employer would have hired a convicted felon.

Sex offender and terrorist databases

In addition to the usual checks for crimes like burglary, it is now possible to
broaden criminal background searches to encompass state databases of
registered sex offenders. Job applicants’ names can also be checked
against a list of accused terrorists, money launderers and international
drug traffickers compiled by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of
Foreign Asset Control from information provided by various national
security agencies.

These new search tools provide an additional layer of protection for fellow
employees as well as an extra means of defense against negligent hiring

Consistent education and employment verification

This is a case of an old practice that had fallen into disfavor in some
quarters and that is now enjoying a renaissance. In the dot-com boom
days, competition for talent was so fierce that there was little time for
thorough investigation of every contender. Many companies therefore
took applicants’ education and employment claims at face value and got
burned. Today HR personnel are viewing this step far more seriously,
knowing that failure to check an Ivy League degree or an
impressive-sounding job has come back to bite many of their colleagues.

Employment verification should include employment dates, position,
compensation, and rehire status. Education verification should cover
attendance, graduation date, course of study, degree, and grade point

Internet-based outsourcing

Many HR departments have long outsourced pre-employment screening to
third-party services in order to free in-house personnel for other duties,
but the advent of the Internet has provided a new alternative with two
significant advantages: speed and 24x7 access.

The best of the newer Internet-based screening services deliver most
results in real time, aggregate all results into a single file, post reports
online for easy retrieval, update them as new information comes in,
archive them for several years, and allow employers to add their own
notes. Some services also handle manual tasks such as on-site county
records searches and verification of employment and education, providing
the one-stop shopping benefits of traditional services on top of the
immediacy of online access.

Beefed-up consent forms

This is listed last because it does not directly contribute to identifying the
persona non grata in a pile of resumes, but the necessary detective work
cannot even begin without it. Signed consent forms have been used for
years to authorize review of a job applicant’s credit records, but now they
must be expanded to protect employers against legal action related to
today’s wider-ranging background checks.

Consent forms should be updated to authorize examination of criminal
records, driving history, credit standing, educational records, financial
statements, professional licensure, workers compensation, military
compensation, and other areas, as well as personal interviews with
neighbors, friends, associates, and past and present employers.

Using these and other techniques to remove the bad apples from the
bushel will help avoid repercussions ranging from on-the-job theft to
negligent hiring suits and violent crimes. As the saying goes, it’s better to
be safe than sorry — particularly when the safety of the entire workplace
may be at stake.


1 “Ex-felon Winds Up a School Principal,” Chicago Tribune, July 20, 2003.

2 Information from company involved in the incident.

3 “Notre Dame Coach Resigns After 5 Days and a Few Lies,” New York
Times, December 15, 2003.

4 “Second Chance: Only After Recruiter’s Death Did Colleagues Learn of
His Past,” New York Times, March 5, 2001.


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