Check it out! What to look for in a job applicant's background

June 1, 2006

How much should you know about the background of those who handle your office payments, payroll, and finances-before you hire them?

MR. RICE is a senior editor for Medical Economics, an Advanstar publication from which this article is adapted. He has nothing to disclose inregard to affiliations with, or financial interests in, any organization that may have an interest in any part of this article.

Regrettably, some people embellish their experience or credentials to help get a job. Or they may fail to mention that they were once fired for violent behavior. Or it may be a reference who chooses not to disclose a serious problem. For example, one internist hired a bookkeeper who formerly worked for an ob-gyn in the same city. When he called for a recommendation, the ob-gyn described the applicant as efficient, well-organized, and popular with patients and staff. What he didn't say-and the internist only discovered a year later, after he had to fire the bookkeeper for stealing a sizable sum-was that the ob-gyn had also fired her for embezzlement.

Why hadn't he mentioned that? When asked, he explained that he hadn't filed charges against her, and his attorney had advised him not to discuss the matter with anyone outside the practice.

Even for those in a less sensitive job, it's worth checking employment references and educational background to make sure applicants are really as qualified as they claim. Although that may take some effort and expense, it's a reasonable investment considering the time and cost of recruiting, hiring, and training a replacement for someone you later have to fire. Besides, as Anders points out, if you tell applicants that you'll be doing a thorough background check, you may scare away the bad apples. The thoroughness required for a background check depends on the specific job being filled and on relevant state laws, but the following basic steps should be part of the process.

The application form

Along with basic data such as name, current and former addresses, education, and Social Security number, the form should ask the applicant for a complete employment history, including dates for each job, and whether he ever worked under a different name. To avoid a charge of discrimination, you can't ask about height, weight, marital status, religion, race, birthplace, or personal finances.

You can't ask an applicant's age, but you can confirm that she's at least old enough to meet the state's minimum age for employment. You can't ask about physical or mental disabilities, but you can ask if there's any reason she might have difficulty meeting the job's specific requirements. You can't ask if he's a US citizen, but you can ask if he's legally authorized for full-time employment in this country. You can't ask if he's ever been arrested, but you can ask if he's ever been convicted of a crime, or if there are any pending felony charges against him.

If you spot gaps when you review the applicant's employment history, ask her to explain them. She may have omitted a job she was fired from or left under a cloud. Or she may have stretched the dates from another job to cover that period. That's why you should verify all dates when you check employment references.

Obtain consent

Because the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (and some states) requires an applicant's written consent before you check his credit history, ask him to sign a waiver that authorizes you to seek relevant background information, and that also gives potential references permission to discuss his background with you. That waiver can be part of the job application form, but it makes more sense to have it on a separate document so that you can send copies to courts, credit agencies, schools, and former employers who may demand them before cooperating with your request.

To avoid the risk of a subsequent claim for invasion of privacy, make sure the applicant knows you'll be checking the information and references he provides, and that no job offer will be made until your investigation is completed. Last, have him sign a statement confirming the accuracy of the data he's supplied on the application form, with the understanding that if he's hired, providing false information will be grounds for immediate discharge.