Looking For Trouble

Dec. 21, 2004
Employees' backgrounds face closer scrutiny in the wake of Sept. 11.

Hired any terrorists lately? An extreme question, maybe, but in the wake of Sept. 11, backgrounds of employees and potential employees are facing increased scrutiny. Manufacturers are paying close attention to new laws and security guidelines handed down by the government. At the same time, firms that provide services ranging from background checks to screening to determine if job applicants' names appear on an FBI watch list of known terrorists are reporting brisk business. Joel Gray, director of human resources policies, plans, and services for Engelhard Corp., Iselin, N.J., says the events of Sept. 11 "clearly reinforced" the need to do background checks on employees. Engelhard employs 6,500 people worldwide and makes specialty products used in the petrochemical, lawn-care and automobile industries. Gray says the company did a thorough review of its hiring and screening procedures after the attacks to make sure nothing had slipped through the cracks. "We have a pretty thorough process across the board," Gray says. "We do a basket of background checks." This basket, he says, depends on the contemplated duties of the prospective employee. Included in the basket are things such as criminal-background checks, verifications of academic achievements, driving histories, and immigration status. At Internet-based screening firm HireRight, headquartered in Irvine, Calif., "We're seeing a substantial increase in the number of phone calls we're receiving," says Eric Boden, president and CEO. Noting that about 85% of major firms use screening to one degree or another, Boden says the process of weeding out potentially troublesome workers largely was motivated by the "doctrine of negligent hiring" prior to Sept. 11. The driving force behind that standard, he says, was corporate fear that an out-of-control employee could subject a firm to astronomical damage awards if he or she hurt fellow employees, customers or passersby in a rampage or harassed people on the job. Though these concerns still are at the forefront, the stark reality of terrorist activity has created a new sense of urgency in the workplace to heighten awareness and tighten security. "We've seen a change since Sept. 11," Boden says. "Companies are broadening their [screening] services. The motivation is more driven by security." Relatively simple checks such as comparing the names of prospective employees to the names on a list of people barred by the government for misconduct can make the workplace more secure, Boden says. Credit checks on applicants expected to earn more than $70,000 a year, verifications of Social Security numbers, and other tests also are helpful, he says. "Very frequently, we uncover people in the screening process who've done terrible acts," Boden says. Among the new laws is the U.S.A. Patriot Act, which passed in November and requires background checks on scientists who work with certain toxins. The law bans citizens of rogue states, felons, illegal aliens, and some others from working with the substances. Also of note are voluntary guidelines on workplace safety and security passed down by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in January. Among the FDA's suggestions are that employers obtain and verify work references, addresses and phone numbers. At the same time, the agency is asking companies to consider performing criminal background checks and comparing names on employment applications to names on the FBI's terrorist watch list. In addition, the FDA suggests that firms check the immigration status of prospective employees if such checks are "appropriate" and apply screening procedures to all employees, including seasonal, temporary, contract and volunteer workers. To add an extra measure of security, the agency recommends that companies screen incoming mail, provide photo-identification badges to employees, collect "retired" badges of workers who leave voluntarily or involuntarily, restrict access to work areas, limit the distribution of keys, and implement a host of other precautions. The recommendations are based on advice from the Air Force, security experts, and manufacturing executives. "Food safety and security is a serious issue that demands a partnership between the government and the private sector," says Robert Brackett, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition. Peter Cleary, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, says the group worked closely with the FDA as the guidelines were being prepared. "We're very pleased with the comprehensiveness of the guidelines," Cleary says. "The FDA did a great job of collecting best practices from our industry and [consulting] with security experts." "It gives us a great tool to take to plant managers," he says. All and all, Engelhard's Gray says, investigating employee backgrounds is "relatively easy and inexpensive to do. I'd rather do [the checks] than explain the aftermath of a workplace incident."

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