Real Background Checks Are Work

January 3, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Bill Brown knows all about bad apples.

With 25 years of law enforcement experience under his belt, Brown has served as deputy police chief for the city of Walker and most recently as a consultant for companies like Cascade Engineering.

Now with Varnum Consulting LLC, Brown is helping to bring companies and employees his version of risk management from the moment they walk through the door.

"Typically, risk management is about insurance and sometimes IT infrastructure, but more specifically it's about money issues — bottom line issues of insurance and the role insurance plays and so forth," Brown explained.

"What I bring to the table are security management services that typically haven't been a part of risk management as we know it."

Brown said that while a good portion of his work includes both training and audits — assessing needs for physical security measures like cameras, guards, alarms and the like — he believes that the most basic and valuable security measures can be found within the employee application and interview process through pre-employment background screening.

"A lot of times people just don't want to put the resources into background checks," Brown said.

"Everyone wants to keep the thieves and drug abusers out of their workplace, but people are so engrossed in what they're doing that they don't give this stuff any thought until there is a problem. They think about it once it's too late.

"It's a lot easier to keep people out than it is to get rid of people causing problems or to fix the problem," he added.

According to Brown, if employers relied solely on the information supplied on an application, they would miss most of the "bad" information about applicants, including many types of arrests.

More than likely, an applicant with a criminal record — whether minor or significant — is not going to put that on an application, with the hope that employers will not check the data. As Brown explained, historically — and most often still today — employers will not run a records check and those convictions go unnoticed.

Many businesses and human resources staff have begun consulting public records databases on the Internet in hope of rooting out convictions, but Brown explained that these often are not reliable.

He said such searches will not turn up convictions that occurred while the applicant was living in other states.

Too, he said, many counties report only felonies. Beyond that, he said, as many as 60 percent to 70 percent of felony convictions may slip through when searches are based on corrections data.

The reason, he explained, is that only 30 percent to 40 percent of first-time felony offenders see time in a correctional facility.

Worse yet, some of the white-collar crimes many employers fear most — embezzlement and money laundering — are federal crimes not found in state records.

According to Brown, background checks are not something that employers can do reliably, even with help from the Internet.

"They don't know where to look for the data to begin with, and if they do find it they often times don't know how to interpret it and what it means," he said.

"They're getting just baseline information to begin with," he said. " We interject the investigative process into that to determine if there is anything there.

"There is some reading between the lines involved, some checking and some verifying, kinds of things that typically wouldn't get done if we relied solely on human resources people."

Many times, turning up a conviction will not be reason enough not to hire an employee, Brown said. But the process should allow an employer more confidence in employees, both in knowing that they were comfortable in bringing those applicants with convictions into the workplace and that "clean" applicants have no secrets.

"People make mistakes," Brown said. "It's the details that are important.

"Most people think that if they put down they've committed a crime, they won't be hired. But that really isn't true and people need to know that what's important is being honest."

In light of recent news, a simple background check could be a good idea for potential partners as well.

Take the CyberNET Group for example.

"If someone had done a due diligence check on CyberNET's key officers, they would have found all this stuff we saw on the news," Brown said.

It took little more than a day for the local media to root out Barton Watson's deviant history, including false degrees, felony convictions and prison time. Had any of the firms' creditors or clients performed due diligence beyond the company itself, many would likely have steered clear.

"We're trying to convince people that that's a wise thing to do," Brown said.

"You can get as involved or uninvolved in the process as you want, but you'll find real variables in the information you receive.

"Plus, it's very affordable. And if you look at the big picture, you only need to have one bad person do one bad thing and it costs a heck of a lot more than the screening process."    

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