Screening New Employees: Part I

Written By: Reid
Nov 01, 2001

Screening New Employees: Part I

In light of the tragic events of September 11th, there is a heightened awareness to properly screen new employees. The terrorists' attack on the WTC and Pentagon has greatly expanded the definition of a "sensitive position." In August of this year who would have imagined that crop dusters, truck drivers, water treatment employees or airline caterers would require employees of the highest integrity? As President Bush stated, "The United States will never be the same again."

The purpose for pre-employment screening is to predict future behavior. While it will never be possible to perfectly forecast a person's behavior, psychologists have long established that the best predictor of a person=s future behavior is to evaluate their recent past behavior. Consider that John and Joe are both applying for a position of trust. John has been discharged from two employers in the last 5 years and has a criminal conviction for possession of marijuana. In addition, John has stolen $200 in merchandise from employers in the last 5 years. Joe has never been fired from a job and his employment history reflects steady promotions. Joe has no criminal record and has not stolen from recent employers. Even though there is no guarantee that John will engage in acts of dishonesty if hired, research strongly supports the finding that if such activity does occur, John will be much more likely involved in it than Joe. From a productivity, loss prevention and safety perspective, employers should hire only those job applicants who represent a low risk for misconduct.

There are a number of pre-employment screening procedures to evaluate a person's past behavior. The following chart lists the advantages and disadvantages of some of these:

Screening Procedure



Drug Tests

Accurately detects recent drug use

Drug-using applicants may abstain while seeking employment

Criminal Record Check

Will reflect criminal convictions only in those counties checked

Does not reveal crimes the applicant committed but was never caught for

Prior Employer Contacts

Verifies that the applicant worked for the employer

Previous employers often will not reveal adverse information

Pre-employment Polygraph Examination

Can identify past adverse behaviors that only the applicant knows about

The Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988 precludes most private employers from using the polygraph

Face to Face Integrity


Can identify past adverse behaviors that only the applicant knows about

Requires an interviewer trained in forensic interviewing techniques

An employer must recognize that no one knows more about a job applicant' s past behavior than the applicant himself. To thoroughly learn about a person=s past requires a procedure where the individual provides that information, which is then subject to verification either through physiological data (polygraph) or behavior symptom analysis (Integrity Interview). Because neither the polygraph nor the Integrity Interview are 100% accurate, an employer should implement additional pre-employment screening tools as part of the entire employee selection process. At a minimum, an employer should contact past employers. Falsification of an employment application is the most common area of deception for job applicants. This includes failure to list all past employers, reasons for leaving jobs, job responsibilities and level of education or training.

When filling a position of trust (money handling, access to merchandise or company records) the employer should not only verify the applicant's employment history but perhaps conduct a criminal record check and require drug screening as well. It is also advisable to require that the applicant produce original documents that are job related. Examples of these documents may include a valid drivers license, a social security card, high school or college transcript, professional license and proof of legal ability to work in the U.S.

The face to face interview with a job applicant is undoubtedly the most important part of the screening process. Too often, this meeting is conducted with the assumption that everything the applicant wrote on the employment application is the truth. Rather than verifying the information on the application, the employer spends time talking about benefit packages, hours, wages and promotion possibilities within the company.

A properly conducted pre-employment interview should consist of the applicant being asked to review his last five years of employment history including the specific dates of employment, job responsibilities and reason for leaving each job. To gauge job performance and reliability, the applicant should be questioned about past disciplinary actions, promotions, absenteeism and tardiness. The applicant should also be questioned about use of illegal drugs in the last two years and other drug related activities (buying, selling, use during or just before work hours). Finally, the applicant's illegal activities should be pursued starting with any criminal convictions in the last seven years. It is important to realize that approximately 80% of criminal admissions elicited during a pre-employment interview involve crimes the applicant was never arrested for. Therefore, the interviewer must ask specific questions about engaging in crimes for which the applicant was never caught.

Depending on the position being applied for, the pre-employment interview should delve into specific past acts of recent job-related behavior. A person applying for a cash-handling position should certainly be asked if he stole money from past employers. An applicant for a driving position should be thoroughly questioned about his driving record especially as it relates to accidents that were unreported and driving under the influence, even though he was never caught. A police candidate with previous law enforcement experience should be asked about use of excessive force during an arrest, theft from a crime scene or perjury while testifying in court or applying for a warrant.

A job applicant who presents a high risk for liability, dishonesty or safety concerns will not volunteer adverse information on an employment application. The employer must aggressively seek out this information to detect unsuitable applicants before they are put on the payroll and jeopardize the company's future productivity. In uncertain economic times it is tempting to view pre-employment screening as a luxury easily cut from a corporate budget. However, human resource professionals have long known that it is far less costly in time and money to identify an unqualified job applicant and not hire that person than to fire that same applicant after his behavior has hurt the company's productivity, profit or reputation.

Our next web tip will discuss the legal aspects of pre-employment screening and procedures to implement a cost-effective screening program.

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