Companies taking a closer look at their employees’ backgrounds

Companies are paying more attention to employee background checks these days, at least partly because of heightened security after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

And they’re uncovering a multitude of sins as they scrutinize workers’ education, employment history, criminal records and driving records.

Problems range from undisclosed felony convictions – which led several San Francisco Airport employees to lose their security clearances recently – to more mundane matters.

“I can’t tell you the number of times when, for vanity’s sake, people have lied about their date of birth,” partner at law firm Fenwick & West Victor Schachter said.

Background checking firms, which perform checks for many companies, say they have seen an increase in interest since Sept. 11. At one firm, business has tripled.

Companies perform the checks to protect themselves from liability if they hire someone with a violent history or without the required qualifications. Also, the checks discourage applicants who know they won’t pass.

“For some people, it chases them away at the door,” accounts manager at Maxim Healthcare Service Ray Griggs said.

Background checks on new hires are common among Silicon Valley’s large employers, including Sun Microsystems, Cisco Systems, Intel and Charles Schwab. All these companies said their processes were in place before Sept. 11, so the attacks didn’t lead to major changes.

Not every discrepancy that shows up on a background check means a candidate won’t be hired.

“What’s important to me is if you claim for yourself a distinction in responsibility, authority or skill that you never really had – that would be a problem,” vice president of human resources at NanoAmp Solutions Richard Martinez said.

Some companies check out current employees as well, especially when they’re promoted or if the employer suspects misconduct. But those who work with employers on background checks say an increasing number of companies are taking a broader look.

“One of the consequences of 9-11 is that more employers are looking to take snapshots of their existing work force,” Schachter said.

Hema Halliyal of Cupertino, Calif., a training manager who was laid off in November, said she would be concerned about a background check that added time to the hiring process, as she is eager to get back to work. But she understands why companies do the checks, and is glad they do.

“I don’t have to worry about whether my co-workers will bring a gun in,” she said.