Properly Handling Background Record Checks of Potential Employees

All companies must proceed cautiously while trying to create safe, productive and pleasant work environments. The best approach is to develop standard procedures for running background checks and investigations for all applicants who will be handling similar tasks — without regard to any discriminatory traits or characteristics.

First and foremost, you must obtain each job applicant’s written permission to run checks on their job and educational records, criminal background history and financial credit status. Should any of the information you obtain make you no longer wish to consider a specific job applicant, you must inform that person about each report’s negative findings – since all potential employees have the right to refute and correct such data.

Always be sure to also treat all applicants with equal respect and remind them that you’re simply trying to learn all you can about your top applicants. And be sure to state in writing that providing false information can cause individuals to be immediately dropped from further consideration – or be fired in the future when such misinformation is discovered.

Here’s additional information about the types of errors that can appear in background checks, how you might allow job candidates to respond to negative findings — and tips on exercising special caution when sensitive data appears on either sex offender registries or terror watch lists.

Types of negative information & errors that may be uncovered during background checks

Hopefully, most of your searches will just reveal that your applicants have provided their correct names, full address histories, all job information for recent years, accurate Social Security numbers and other basic data. However, chances are that at least some of your potential employees will need to explain about one or more of the following findings.

  • Past arrests or conviction records. Always pay close attention to the types of behavior or crimes involved, when the events occurred and how (if true) that history might affect your work environment. If you still wish to hire a person with some type of negative arrest or conviction, remember that you have a legal duty to create a safe work environment for all your employees. Also, bear in mind that future claims of negligent hiring could prove very costly to your company.
  • Fraudulent or grossly misleading information about the applicant’s academic background or work history. As noted above, make sure that all your application forms clearly indicate that providing false information on such forms (or on a resume) can be immediate grounds for dismissing an applicant from further consideration. Should you believe that any applicant may have simply made a typographical or innocent error on the forms, always allow the person to provide corrected information. Just be sure to respond to the discovery of such false information in the same manner for every applicant;
  • Misleading or inaccurate driving record information. If you’re hiring someone to deliver packages or goods for you – or drive others around on your company’s behalf, you better make sure they have an excellent driving record.
  • A very poor credit score, a bankruptcy or other signs of major financial problems. Always be sensitive and careful when asking applicants to explain this type of information;
  • The person’s name turns up on a sex offender registry or a terrorist watch list. Given the number of people who are burdened with very common names, always reveal what you’ve learned to the individual in a calm manner, preferably with at least one other human resources staff member present. If you still want to hire a person whose name was on one of these lists, always first speak with your Houston employment law attorney.

Your lawyer can tell you how you should go about carefully determining a person’s correct identity and if it’s too risky to hire someone. It may even be necessary to contact the Department of Homeland Security if the person is listed on a terrorist watch list. (Do keep in mind that even the government knows that it can be very time-consuming to remove a name wrongfully added to a terrorist watch list);

It’s crucial to maintain a standard of fairness that applies to all applicants

Be sure your company’s hiring policies provide specific time limits on when applicants must provide you with corrected information after background checks turn up negative or disturbing information. Always apply that same standard to all applicants. If someone needs more time, you should only allow a one-time extension that applies equally to others.

How long must you keep all job application forms and background check information?

The EEOC (Equal Opportunity Commission), the Department of Labor and the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) each provide slightly different guidelines on how long certain records should be kept. Overall, it’s a good idea to keep a copy of all application materials and background information for about two years. Of course, if any job applicant or employee files a lawsuit against your company, that person’s records should be kept until all legal proceedings and appeals have come to an end.

Make sure all employee records are stored in a restricted area where only one or two senior human resource officials have access to them. Once it’s time to destroy the records, it’s wise to carefully shred, burn or pulverize the data so that the material can no longer be read.

Of course, some employers keep all resumes and job application forms in case they later have problems with an employee — or come across information that indicates that the background check failed to disclose fraudulent claims were contained in those documents. Some firms just scan all such data into secure databases.

Since credit background checks are governed by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), be sure you understand the terms of that legislation and how it impacts your specific workplace. Also, always keep in mind that the State of Texas also has laws and regulations that can impact how your company handles background checks and employee records. It’s always wise to periodically touch base with your lawyer to find out if any of these laws have recently changed.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can provide you with the legal guidance you may need while hiring employees or simply running your business. We can also provide you with any contracts you may need — or review the contents of your current employee handbook.

EEOC Guidelines: Training Employees About Workplace Discrimination

To create and maintain a professional work environment, employers must make sure everyone interacts in a respectful manner. The best way to promote respect is to provide proper employee training that carefully defines discriminatory behavior and clearly states what won’t be tolerated.

Newly hired employees should always be trained, even if this must be done individually. They must learn how to recognize forbidden forms of discrimination. Periodic retraining on sexual harassment and other common forms of discrimination should also be mandatory. If you don’t already have a hard copy or online employee handbook that clearly sets forth your workplace standards on discrimination, you can ask your Houston employment law attorney to help you draft one.

Here’s a review of the types of workplace discrimination and harassment that should be clearly forbidden in writing and during oral training sessions. After presenting information on these topics to all your employees, it’s best to also provide a bit more in-depth training to your supervisors and managers who will need to handle the discipline, complaints and investigations usually involved with reported acts of alleged discrimination.

What types of workplace discrimination are most common today?

  • Treating others differently due to their race, skin color, ethnic background or country of natural origin. No job applicant or employee should ever be treated unfairly due to any of these facts or traits. When investigating this type of claim, you may need to privately admonish and inform the wrongdoer that such behavior is legally forbidden and can lead to dismissal. (In egregious cases, immediate firing may be required.) Employers should keep detailed notes about all such complaints and formal reprimands. It’s wise to always have disciplined employees sign and date forms indicating that they’ve been warned that additional acts of discrimination may lead to dismissal. All employee files and complaints must be kept safely locked up and only accessed by a few managers;
  • Discrimination based upon a person’s sex including sexual harassment or current pregnancy status. All workers must learn to respect their coworkers, regardless of another employee’s sex. Stay open to questions and provide answers that are clearly supported by your company’s anti-discrimination policies;
  • Disability status. Regardless of whether someone was born with a physical disability or acquired one later in life, every effort must be made to help that person handle his/her job, unless doing so would place an undue burden on the employer. (Requests may often involve making facilities more accessible or changing an employee’s work schedule so it will interfere less with a medical disability);
  • Age. When workers are young, it’s hard for them to believe that age discrimination is real. However, as they grow older, they’ll start noticing how the most desirable promotions are often given to younger staff members – and not to older workers. And older workers often find themselves in the groups being laid off when a company claims it’s going through hard times. This type of discrimination is often self-defeating since older workers often: (1) have excellent problem-solving skills due to all their experience, (2) usually enjoy learning new skills and helping to train newcomers – and (3) often have the lowest rates of absenteeism due to their dedication to their employers;
  • Religion. Sadly, although most American adults know that one main reason this country was founded was to extend religious freedom to all citizens, too many people today treat coworkers with disrespect when they appear to follow faith practices different than their own;
  • Discrimination related to an employee’s genetic information (or family medical history). Both state and federal laws forbid this type of discrimination. One of the federal laws is named the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA). Title II of GINA specifically prohibits workplace discrimination based upon an employee’s genetic information. Employers must exercise great care when hiring the employees who must handle all company medical insurance and claim forms. These workers must understand that any knowledge they accidentally gain about an employee’s medical condition(s) or family history must be held in the strictest confidence.

Special training for company managers and supervisors

An additional, separate training should be periodically presented to these employees to be sure they fully understand how to handle every discrimination complaint they receive. After all, they will be playing a key role in investigating these complaints and making sure they handle their responsibilities in strict compliance with all state and federal laws.

Be sure that these higher-level employees have made the complaint process both easy and transparent for workers. It’s their job to remind employees that they will not be punished for coming forward with claims – or acting as witnesses for those who are filing claims.

In your special training program for these workers, be sure to also address the following topics.

  • Managers must understand that detailed, investigative notes must be kept. When an employee files a complaint based on alleged acts of discrimination or harassment, you need to obtain information about each time such acts were committed and get the names of all possible witnesses. Dates and times are crucial bits of information. If more than one person was involved in the illegal behavior, be sure to write down all names – and speak with each of these individuals separately;
  • All managers and supervisors need clear definitions of what can constitute a “reasonable accommodation” for a disabled employee. It’s a good idea to review the content of your training with your attorney prior to making this type of presentation;
  • Retaliation. Inform higher-level employees that all forms of retaliation for reporting alleged acts of discrimination or harassment are strictly forbidden – and can result in liability for those involved;
  • Acceptable religious attire, hairstyles and practices. Explain to your managers what type of religious clothing is fully acceptable in the workplace. You should also tell them which hair or beard styles should be allowed, based upon an employee’s stated religious beliefs. When possible, managers should try to accommodate time off from work to attend special worship services – if doing so won’t cause an undue burden on co-workers or the company;
  • Sexual harassment. Supervisors and managers must be fully acquainted with all the types of language and behavior that can constitute sexual harassment. Remind them that offensive cartoons or signs related to sex should never be posted or circulated at work;
  • Privacy is crucial to all investigations. Remind all of those involved with investigating any claims of discrimination or harassment that they must never share any information they gain with non-investigative employees – or anyone outside of the company – since confidentiality is critical for everyone.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys if you have any questions about how you’ve drafted portions of your employee handbook, especially sections addressing discrimination and sexual harassment. We can provide you with useful advice and are always available to help should an employee file a claim with you or the EEOC alleging any form of workplace discrimination.

10 Ways to Minimize Liability When Providing Employee References

Although it was far simpler twenty years ago to provide references for most departing and former employees, it now requires careful planning. Employers must take deliberate steps to protect themselves against possible lawsuits brought by disgruntled former employees who may claim that they’ve been harmed by defamatory or negative job references.

All companies should now consider requesting (as a hiring condition) that each new employee sign a release form granting permission for the company to provide future job references without threat of liability. As noted below, that paperwork can then be supplemented by new, signed and dated authorization forms for each future reference requested.

Before sharing ten ways your company can reduce its potential liability when providing job references, this article will first briefly review common legal arguments advanced by former employees when they sometimes sue claiming a reference harmed their future job prospects.

Types of arguments past employees advance when alleging harm due to a job reference

Keep in mind that defamation does not have to produce actual harm – it’s enough that the negative reference was published or communicated to a third party and might reflect poorly on a past employee’s good name or overall reputation. Courts will normally review all the surrounding circumstances to determine whether a reference was truly damaging.

  • Intentional infliction of emotional distress. An angry former employee may claim that the person who issued the reference used unjustified and inflammatory language. While this isn’t asserted often, it’s a reminder to create a clear and distinct policy for how all references should be handled – free of unsubstantiated opinions or undocumented gossip. For example, it’s always wise to avoid alleging that a former employee demonstrated clear signs of struggling with some form of substance abuse on the job;
  • Invasion of privacy. Your company must avoid publicizing private information about an employee. For example, if you investigated why an employee was late to work on several occasions, you should never publicly disclose that the person was repeatedly jailed overnight due to arrests for drunk driving;
  • Interference with contract. A business should never knowingly provide false or misleading information about a former employee that could reasonably bias a prospective employer against hiring the person. Be as honest as possible and rely on neutral, documented information in the employee’s personnel file whenever possible;
  • Title VII discrimination. You must never provide a negative reference because a past employee was a member of a protected class. So, do not claim you fired someone because of their disability or alleged problems due to their gender. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids this type of discriminatory behavior.

Ten practices that can help you provide safe and proper references

  1. Always obtain employee consent. You should require a written request from all past employees asking you to provide a reference to a specifically named individual. This is very important since references should only be provided to proper parties;
  2. Designate only one or two company officials to handle all employee references. Centralizing this operation can help your company avoid releasing poorly drafted forms or letters of reference. It’s usually best to forbid all supervisors and other employees from providing their own references. You may want to create your own simple form for providing all references;
  3. Maintain accurate personnel files for all employees. Furthermore, be sure to conduct regular employee evaluations – and have employees sign the bottom of all written evaluations. This information should provide the basis for future letters of reference. It must be free of any biased or highly negative comments whenever possible;
  4. Avoid providing references over the phone. This is important since phone requests can be placed by nearly anyone. You must always be sure you’re only providing information to legitimate parties. Secure, written communications are always best. And never provide a reference until after you’ve received a new, written authorization form signed and dated by the former employee. (It should state that your company will not be held liable for providing the requested reference.) You can email or fax this form to the past employee when you receive a new request;
  5. Only provide information to proper parties. Be aware that private investigators and others may contact you and just pretend to be potential employers. Your company could be sued if you release a reference to someone who is not a prospective employer;
  6. Try to stick to the scope of the requested information. Don’t volunteer opinions or offer unsubstantiated data. Depending on your firm’s established policy for providing references – just stick to basic facts. (However, be sure to review the last paragraph of this article about providing references for past employees who exhibited violent workplace behavior – made serious threats – or sexually harassed other employees);
  7. Keep detailed records regarding all reference requests. If you fail to keep all written data involved with these requests and copies of the information your company provided, you may have a very difficult time mounting an effective defense if you’re sued for defamation – or on the other grounds named above – by a former employee;
  8. Be careful and provide about the same amount of information about all employees. While it may be tempting to provide lengthy praise for some former employees, it’s best to only comment on factors that may apply to all employees. If you’re going to provide negative information, be sure to first check with your Houston employment law attorney to be certain you’re not being too harsh – or revealing too much;
  9. Try to avoid requiring or compelling self-publication. If you fired someone because they were recently convicted of a serious crime or are no longer qualified to maintain a certain level of a security clearance, be careful what reason you give for firing that person. Otherwise, you may be forcing that person to later “self-publish” negative facts about themselves. Ask your lawyer if there are other valid legal grounds you can state as the basis for the firing of an employee when controversial issues were also involved. This can cause complex problems — yet honesty is always crucial; and
  10. Only share objective information. Never tell a prospective employer about any workplace gossip tied to the past employee’s personal problems. You should only be sharing data that can be easily verified by reviewing the employee’s personnel file.

While all these tips should help you reduce your chances of being sued based on a claim of defamation (or the other grounds stated at the beginning of this article), you must remain aware that providing too little information about a past employee can potentially render you liable in a lawsuit brought by the new employer. More facts about that problem are provided below.

Can you be sued for negligent referral, fraud or misrepresentation due to your reference?

Those types of lawsuits are becoming more common. If you had knowledge that a past employee behaved violently in your workplace, made serious verbal or physical threats against others – or sexually harassed one or more workers, you might need to disclose some of that information. This is a topic you must discuss in much greater detail with your Houston employment law attorney since Texas law may or may not provide you with adequate protection from liability.

If you’re uncertain how to provide a reference for a past or departing employee, please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We can provide you with sound legal advice regarding such topics. Our firm can also help you create employee release and authorization forms. Should you be sued by a former employee, we’ll be available to defend you through every stage of any proceeding.