Firms probing employees’ pasts

by Sherry Slater, The Journal Gazette
October 31, 2004

Before you step behind their counters, some retailers want to know whether you’ve ever been behind bars.

Criminal background checks have become a common part of the hiring process for good reason: Retailers have a lot to worry about.

Unstable employees can engage in workplace violence. Debt-ridden workers can dip into company money. And deviant hires can sexually abuse customers or co-workers.

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest company, suffered a blitz of bad publicity this year when an employee in a South Carolina store molested a child who was shopping with her parents. The worker was a convicted sex offender. The incident was similar to one four years earlier involving another Wal-Mart employee molesting a 10-year-old girl in another South Carolina store.

The Bentonville, Ark.-based retail chain, which has 1.5 million employees worldwide, announced in August its plan to conduct background checks on incoming U.S. employees.

The Society for Human Resource Management reported in January that 80 percent of employers who responded to its survey conduct criminal background checks on at least some of their job applicants. The non-profit professional association surveyed retail, manufacturing and insurance companies.

More than 60 percent of the human resources professionals surveyed said they find inaccuracies in resumes after carrying out background checks, according to the Alexandria, Va.-based professional association.

Ira Wolfe, a Lancaster Pa.-based consultant, studies the labor market. He said he believes employers should invest in background checks on applicants – even if they simply check the county or state of residence.

Previous and pending theft, assault and sexual convictions can be found in such reports for about $15, he said. Retail operations lose more merchandise to sticky-fingered employees than to shoplifting customers, Wolfe said in a telephone interview last week.

According to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, employee fraud is on the rise, totaling an estimated $600 billion in lost revenue for U.S. businesses in 2002.

Wolfe also sells employee pre-employment tests created to detect applicants’ levels of honesty and integrity.

The questionnaires cost as little as $12 a person and should be coupled with criminal checks, he said.

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Ira S Wolfe