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Checking Into a Temp's Past

What you don't know about a temp's shadowy past can hurt you.

Anita Johnston calls every last reference on a job application before hiring a new employee at A. Johnston Appliance Repair Inc. in Orland Park, Illinois. "Another thing I always check is their driving record," says the 49-year-old owner. "If their driving record isn't good, I don't even bring them in for an interview."

All that checking takes work, however, so Johnston was tickled to learn that two temporary workers she hired in 2004 had their backgrounds pre-cleared by the employment agency.

In fact, the types of background checks commonly done on permanent employees are becoming more popular with temporary workers. These checks go beyond calling references and delve deeply into an individual's educational, criminal and credit history.

Background checks can reveal much that an applicant may want to hide, as well as correct inaccuracies in the application, says Jim Hall, CEO and president of HRPlus, a background checking service in Evergreen, Colorado. Credit agencies may provide a former address that an applicant didn't include on a resume, and that may lead to information on a past criminal conviction, he says.

Businesses can perform inexpensive online background checks themselves, but temp agencies usually use professional services for $20 to $200 per employee and pass the information on to employers. Businesses are increasingly willing to pay it as they realize the importance of vetting temps' backgrounds.

"The nature of the workplace has changed," says Hall. "It's a lot easier for an unvetted employee to cause harm to the employer because of the way data--everything from client lists to sensitive employee information--is stored."

Applicants often misstate the facts on applications, says Karen Rae Horwitz, president of Paige Personnel Servicesin Skokie, Illinois. "You'd be shocked how many people lie," says Horwitz, who blames the mendacity trend on looser relationships between employers and employees, as well as today's greater reliance on resumes as opposed to personal interviews.

Even the best background checks may not tell you everything. The lack of a national database of criminal records, for instance, makes it easy for applicants to hide past convictions by simply not listing an address in the jurisdiction where the conviction occurred.

Due to anti-discrimination laws, some things turned up by background checks can't be considered in the employment decision. Anything recent and relevant to the job duties can legally be taken into account, but even a past felony conviction may be considered irrelevant if it was more than seven years ago, Hall says.

Background checks also add to the time it takes to hire temporary employees. While limited checks can be done in a day, more intensive checks can take a week. However, some temp agencies, including Horwitz's, vet every temp in advance so employers can fill positions quickly.

For Johnston, knowing a temporary employee has been checked out in advance puts her mind at ease. One of the temps she hired in 2004 is still employed part time with her as a secretary. She only wishes she could tap agencies for similarly prevetted employees to work as mobile repair technicians. Despite her best efforts to check references and driving records, occasionally she brings an employee onboard who she wishes she hadn't. Says Johnston, "Sometimes they take the vans and we can't find them."

Mark Henricks writes on business and technology for leading publications and is author of Not Just a Living.

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This article was originally published in the April 2006 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Check That Temp.

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