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Practice Pointers: Checking out job applicants


Here's how to conduct a thorough background investigation before hiring a new staffer.

When doctors get together to discuss practice problems, sooner or later someone will tell a horror story about a trusted employee who stole money. Could that happen in your practice? Before insisting it couldn't, ask yourself how much you really know about the backgrounds of those who handle your office payments, payroll, and finances. How carefully did you investigate their credit and criminal records, or their employment and personal references?

Unfortunately, some people will 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'd 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 less sensitive jobs, it's worth checking employment references and educational background to make sure applicants are really as qualified as they claim. While 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. While the thoroughness required for a background check depends on the specific job being filled and on relevant state laws, the following basic steps should be part of the process:

The application form. Along with basic data like 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 she ever worked under a different name. To avoid claims of discrimination, you can't ask about height, weight, marital status, religion, race, birthplace, or personal finances.

How to sidestep other legal minefields: 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 she's a US citizen, but you can ask if she's legally authorized for full-time employment in this country. You can't ask if she's ever been arrested, but you can ask if she's ever been convicted of a crime, or if there are any pending felony charges against her.

Getting the applicant's consent. Since the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (and some states) requires an applicant's written consent before you check her credit history, ask her to sign a waiver that authorizes you to seek relevant background information, and that also gives potential references permission to discuss her background with you. While that waiver can be part of the job application form, 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 she provides, and that no job offer will be made until your investigation is completed. Finally, have her sign a statement confirming the accuracy of the data she's supplied on the application form, with the understanding that if she's hired, providing false information will be grounds for immediate discharge.

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© National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health