Background checks can weed out bad hires
■ A column about keeping your practice in good health
By Pamela Lewis Dolan — covered health information technology issues and social media topics affecting physicians. Connect with the columnist: @Plewisdolan — Posted Nov. 27, 2006.
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When Joseph Kasper, MD, hired a family acquaintance to manage his solo practice, he didn't feel a background check was necessary. He later learned that was a mistake -- one which nearly cost him his practice.
The family physician from West Valley City, Utah, and his wife, Suzie, knew Stephanie Jo Wilde-Mathie for more than 10 years. She managed their church's nursery. They knew her children. They knew she had professional experience handling budgets and finances.
But apparently, they didn't know enough. Wilde-Mathie is scheduled to appear in Utah State Court's 3rd District on Nov. 28 where she will answer to charges that she stole more than $50,000 from the doctor through forged checks and fraudulent credit cards. Wilde-Mathie's attorney, Michael Stout, said he is not yet sure how she will plead.
"It nearly wiped us out," said Suzie Kasper, who now serves as the interim business manager of her husband's practice.
Background checks can be as basic as a quick call to a past employer or as extensive as a complete report including credit checks, criminal records and interviews with childhood friends. But because many small practices don't have human resources departments, many hiring decisions are based solely on a resume and first impressions.
Lisa Guerin, an editor and author for Nolo, a do-it-yourself legal resource publishing company, suggests focusing on things relevant to the job.
During the application process, experts recommend asking for written permission for the background check and revealing exactly what you will be looking at and how you plan to gather the information.
One of the easiest searches can be done online using resources such as Google or Yahoo. Internet searches can produce a lot of information from many sources but should be used with caution. The sources of the information many times cannot be verified, and therefore might not be trustworthy. And it's possible to find information on the right name, but the wrong person.
Many job applications include past job information. Despite several state laws protecting past employers who dish out derogatory, yet truthful, information about past employees, many are still fearful that sharing information that could cost a former employee a new job could lead to a defamation of character claim.
But unbiased information such as dates of employment and job responsibilities, which most applicants are willing to share, can help identify inaccuracies on a resume and other warning signs. Another way to avoid potential legal issues is to ask for a reference from a nonmanager who is familiar with the applicant's work habits, like a former co-worker.
But if the former employer is forthcoming, experts say good questions to ask include: Is the person reliable and trustworthy? Did they come to work on time? Were there disciplinary issues? And one of the best questions to ask is whether they would rehire the person. Unspoken cues, like a hesitation before answering or an obvious nervous reaction, can generate red flags.
Although still considered somewhat controversial, many employers have found the best sources of information pertaining to the person's integrity and ability to honor commitments is a credit report.
Many are finding it's especially useful when filling jobs dealing with money. The way one manages one's personal finances could be a good indication as to how they might handle your practice's finances, said Kelli Johnston, a recruiter for Harper Associates, a health care recruiting firm in Farmington Hills, Mich. And an applicant living beyond his or her means might be considered a risky choice for a position that handles large sums of cash.
Federal laws prohibit the discrimination against someone who has filed bankruptcy. However, a bad credit history can be used as a reason to deny employment if a copy of the credit report is provided to the applicant with the reasons for denial. The applicant must also be advised of the right to dispute information in the report. Guerin said those laws are in place to protect unwitting victims of identity theft.
Individual credit reports can be obtained from the three major reporting agencies -- Experian, Equifax and TransUnion -- with a copy of the applicant's signed release form and job application and a fee of about $30.
Starting at about $50, online services, such as Intelius.com and USSearch.com, can generate a personal history within minutes. Some of the more comprehensive reports can include everything from the names of neighbors to a list of traffic violations. Most companies offer smaller packages including only information of the client's choosing.
Much of the information found in a personal history report can be obtained without using an outside agency. An extensive criminal background search, however, is a little trickier.
There is no central database that the public can use to check criminal convictions. Some online reports include only state convictions and not county level. A thorough search can cost more than $100 and can take several days, since the most accurate way to complete the search is to call the county court in every location in which the applicant has lived.
In a white paper report written by Laura Elzey for the Society of Human Resource Management, the author warns to check laws in each state regarding criminal history. Some states prohibit discrimination against people with records while others allow declining an applicant with criminal convictions but not misdemeanors if probation was completed. But as a first line of defense, experts suggest asking the applicant to list all convictions, with the threat of termination for withholding information.
Some companies make job offers contingent on the passing of a background check. But Guerin recommends doing the background check prior to making an offer. An employee who is already in the door and knows he or she is probably going to lose the job anyway may decide to "make hay while the sun shines," she said. You can also save the money on a background check by giving an applicant who has something to hide the chance to withdraw from consideration first.
Guerin suggests that before you start, you should think about the information you really need and consider the reasons why.
Too much prying into someone's personal life could cross the line into an invasion of privacy. And since full disclosure of most searches is required by law, even applicants with nothing to hide might feel violated by their prospective employer knowing too much.
But as Dr. Kasper now knows, hiring someone on a gut feeling could end badly.
Suzie Kasper says when the time comes to hire a replacement, she plans to spend a lot of time on the phone calling references and checking credit.
Pamela Lewis Dolan covered health information technology issues and social media topics affecting physicians. Connect with the columnist: @Plewisdolan —