legislation: Back-up Employee Background Checks

Matthew Kearney wondered why he did not get a job offer following a very upbeat, congenial interview with the sales manager of a prominent waste equipment manufacturer.

In fact, Kearney couldn't figure out why he had been turned down repeatedly for sales positions both in and outside of the waste industry. When he did manage to land a job, he was fired within a month.

In early 1998, after two years of steady rejections, Kearney, then 39, discovered the problem: He couldn't secure or keep a job because employers that did background checks on him were given an erroneous report that detailed shoplifting and other offenses.

The report was forwarded to one of the companies where he had applied by one of several firms that provide background checks and work histories to employers. These firms operate nationwide, pooling reports and information, and operating similar to credit bureaus.

Kearney says he was the victim of identity theft after his wallet was stolen. Shortly thereafter, a shoplifter, who was arrested in Missouri, used Kearney's name and identification. A few days later, police in an Arkansas community nabbed a burglary suspect who also had used Kearney's name and identification.

After he discovered the theft report, Kearney sued the firm that had performed the background screening, alleging that it had failed to correct the report even after he had furnished proof of his innocence. In an out-of-court settlement, Kearney received almost $75,000.

"It cost me my life," says Kearney, who has since legally changed his name and gotten a new Social Security number. "I never knew why I wasn't being hired. That's the insidious nature of this - there's often no way to know for sure."

This is more than just an anecdote. Kearney's experience illustrates a growing conflict between the rights of employers and employees in a world of quick, inexpensive computer access to public information. How can a prospective employer balance its need to know about a potential employee with that individual's need for privacy?

Indeed, the problem transcends the workplace: Anyone can be damaged irreversibly by stigmatic information mistakenly placed on public records if they do not aggressively pursue their right to discover and correct any errors.

Information brokers have linked with government agencies and businesses, putting increasing numbers of public records on the Internet and facilitating the compilation of dossiers on any individual, including Social Security numbers, property ownership and driving records.

The available services range from relatively pricey ($200 or more) investigation companies to upstart websites that offer data for less than $50. Checks can take days or can be as short as a few minutes.

Employers generally do not disclose what kind of background checks they use. What's obvious, though, is that checking on job applicants has increased sharply, reflecting sensitivity to incidents of workplace violence and lawsuits charging employers with negligent hiring.

Since September 1997, job applicants have had rights under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. An employer must get written permission from job applicants before seeking background information on them. If a job applicant is turned down because of what an investigative report contains, the employer must give the applicant a copy of the report, as well as the name, address and telephone number of the agency or firm that completed the report, and a two-page Federal Trade Commission publication that summarizes consumer rights under the law. Changes in the law also make it easier for job applicants to correct errors in these reports.

When employers check applicants' resumes, they find that quite a few people were lying.

"Over the years, the incidence of resume distortion has continued to creep up," says Edward C. Andler, who wrote "The Complete Reference Checking Handbook" (Amacom, 1998). "People are more willing to lie and stretch the truth."

Small companies may turn to unreliable pre-employment checking services because they may not know about reputable services or may consider them too expensive, some experts say.

If an online check turns up questionable information, an employer should substantiate it from other sources.

"Electronic information can be wrong, and to rely upon it blindly is unwise," advises Garry Mathiason, an employment and labor law specialist.

Awards The Association of Oregon Recyclers, Gresham, Ore., has named its 1998 Recyclers of the Year. They are: Jan Rankin, city of Gresham, Ore.; Bi-O-Kleen Industries, Clackamas, Ore.; Jack Force, AMG Resources, Seattle; Portland Public Schools, Ore.; Lochmead Dairy and Dari-Mart Stores, Junction City, Linn, Benton and Lane Counties, Ore.; Zachary Zakon, Eugene, Ore.; and Smurfit Newsprint, Newberg Mill, Newberg, Ore.

Power Strategies LLC., Houston, has received the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Landfill Methane Outreach Program "1998 Project of the Year" award for its Elk River Project, which began commercial operation in November.

Awards New York-based Pure Energy Corp.'s P-series motor fuel has been proposed to be designated as an "alternative fuel" by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Superior Services Inc.'s Oak Ridge Landfill, Ballwin, Mo., has received the Missouri Waste Control Coalition's Outstanding Achievement Award.

The Recycling Coalition of Utah, Salt Lake City, has named its state Recycler of the Year award winners for 1998. Nucor Steel, Plymouth, won the business category; Recycle Utah, Park City, won the government/non-profit category; and Bob Bayn, Logan, won the individual award.