One Employers Take: Social Media & Background Checks

The New York Times blog on small businesses, You’re The Boss, has a Q&A with Prasad Thammineni, the founder of OfficeDrop, about his experience with background checks for hiring new employees. He discusses how he feels about checking social media accounts as a part of the process. I appreciate his nuanced approach, but I don’t know how many other bosses would take the same one. And I agree with one commenter about checking Linked In because its a professional site–that criteria doesn’t hold much weight.

-Lesly

What OfficeDrop Learned About Background Checks

By Dalia Fahmy, New York Times

The case study we published last week chronicled the efforts of OfficeDrop, a start-up that scans sensitive documents for its clients and therefore must ensure that employees are trustworthy.

The article recounted how Prasad Thammineni, OfficeDrop’s chief executive, struggled at first to find the right background-check company and then faced a daunting variety of checks to choose among — including drug tests, credit checks and criminal checks. After Mr. Thammineni had done his homework and decided on a “five-point” bundle with Kroll Background Screening, which checks a variety of federal and local criminal records as well as Social Security numbers and driving history, he thought his job was done. Every new employee, Mr. Thammineni resolved, would be subject to a background check once he or she had accepted a conditional job offer.

The result?

So far, Mr. Thammineni has conducted background checks on 21 candidates. He said he is happy with his choices — although he has had to make some changes along the way.

The first change came early on when a poor credit report for a candidate who seemed otherwise perfect for the job prompted Mr. Thammineni to rethink credit checks. In this economy, he decided, a poor credit history doesn’t always signify poor financial habits. Many people he knew, including highly qualified, responsible workers, had lost their jobs during the recession and were having trouble making ends meet. He stopped doing credit checks.

The second change came later, after a string of background checks showed red flags, forcing Mr. Thammineni to revise his policy of offering conditional employment pending the results. “If the background check is clean, we get the report in three days, but if something is wrong we have to wait a week,” he said. “During this time, the employees were done with their training but we couldn’t let them touch the documents. So they were just sitting around doing nothing, and it was costing us money.”

And if the report came back with a blemish, Mr. Thammineni found himself in the sticky position of having to revoke the job offer without being able to explain to other employees — because of confidentiality issues — why their new colleague was being let go. “It was awkward,” he said. “Especially if you hire several people at the time, and some of them get to touch the documents but others don’t.”

As a result, OfficeDrop has built another step into its process. During interviews, candidates are required to complete a questionnaire covering the same ground as the background check. This gives OfficeDrop a fairly accurate indication of what will probably show up in the report and weeds out troublesome candidates.

In a brief interview, Mr. Thammineni addressed some of the concerns raised by readers of the case study.

Q: Did any of the comments surprise you or cause you to rethink your policy?

Mr. Thammineni
: Some commenters suggested that we hold off on hiring people until we do the background check, and that’s something we’re considering. It doesn’t work for everyone. Even in this economy, for example, there’s a lot of demand for talented tech workers, so we can’t afford to wait before making them an offer.

Q: What did you make of the suggestion that a candidate’s privacy should be respected and that past offenders should be given a second chance?

Mr. Thammineni
: Privacy is something we always debate, but we are dealing with client documents that have sensitive private information, so we need to make sure our employees have clean backgrounds. It’s not like we’re surprising candidates with those checks. We tell them very clearly what to expect when they schedule the interview, and when they come in, we have them sign a consent form.

We do, however, draw a line with social networks. Some business owners have recommended checking Facebook and MySpace but checking social networks isn’t like doing a criminal background check. To me, it’s more like going into their home and seeing how they live. They’re not giving you consent to do that. We do check LinkedIn, though, since that’s a professional site, to make sure they’re not fudging their work history.

Q
: Why didn’t you rely on a business network when you were building your background check policy, as one of our panelists suggested?

Mr. Thammineni
: Most of the companies in my network are very high tech businesses and they don’t do background checks. But I thought that was a good point, and we are starting to seek out advice from other business owners more. We like the question-and-answer format on LinkedIn, and there’s also a new site called Quora that we’re keeping an eye on.

Q
: Has a background check ever missed something that you caught later on?

Mr. Thammineni
: Luckily, no.

(Original story at NYTimes.com)

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