Expert Commentary

Preemployment Screening and Workplace Violence Prevention

The number of workplace homicides has dropped from 1074 in 1993 to 609 in 2002, due in part to effective preemployment screening programs. Since problem individuals tend to make trouble wherever they go, background checks, reference checks, preemployment interviews, and drug testing are key to ferreting out troublemakers before they become employees.


Workplace Violence Prevention
June 2004

Barbara had just moved into her new apartment. After living 4 years in the university's dorms and sharing a suite with two other students, she was looking forward to living on her own. One of the first things she did after signing a lease for her new apartment was to call the local cable company to arrange for service to her apartment. She had read all about digital cable and high definition television (HDTV). Her parents had given her a high definition television as a graduation gift, and she was anxious to begin using it.

On Saturday morning the cable installation technician arrived promptly at 10 a.m. He introduced himself as Chuck, and mentioned that he had just started working for the cable company. As he was speaking, he gazed at Barbara in a way that made her feel uncomfortable. At first Barbara thought she was just imagining things, but then Chuck told her that he could provide her with some "free cable services." All she would need to do was "return the favor" by going out on a date with him. Barbara replied that she wasn't interested.

Chuck immediately became more verbally aggressive and said some inappropriate things to Barbara. This upset Barbara. She threatened to call the cable company if Chuck didn't quickly install her cable and leave. Chuck responded by saying that no one can threaten him and get away with it. He then physically attacked Barbara. Luckily a neighbor heard Barbara's screams and intervened before Chuck seriously injured Barbara.

Chuck was arrested and eventually went to jail for assault and battery. Barbara sued the cable company not only for the attack on her, but also for negligent hiring. It turned out that the cable company only did a quick check of Chuck's references before hiring him. Had they conducted an appropriate preemployment screening, they would have easily learned that Chuck had served two prison terms for attacking and seriously injuring women.

An accounting firm and a manufacturing company also experienced similar problems and lawsuits involving their employees. The accounting firm hired a female employee who began to have problems with her work performance during her first week on the job. As the weeks went by, the work performance problems increased. The female employee blamed her problems on her supervisors whom she claimed "had it in for her" because of her lifestyle. Her employment was eventually ended because she was consistently late with her work and made numerous and repeated errors that caused the accounting firm to lose several of its clients.

During the termination meeting, the female employee became enraged. She yelled obscenities at the human resources manager. Security was called. As she was being escorted out of the workplace, she threatened she kill her supervisors. The accounting firm reported the threats to the police, who recommended that the firm get a restraining order. During the process of obtaining the restraining order, the firm did a background check on the female employee. They found out to their dismay that the female employee's previous employer had to get a restraining order because she had threatened her supervisor. A simple background check could have saved the accounting firm a considerable amount of time and money.

The manufacturing company hired a male technician to replace a worker who was injured in an automobile accident. Because they needed a replacement worker immediately, they pretty much accepted the male technician's application without verifying what he had written, particularly the part that asked about felony convictions. The male technician had checked "No" to this question. Several weeks later, the male technician beat up a coworker so badly during an argument that the coworker had to be hospitalized for 10 days. After the male technician was arrested, the manufacturing company learned that he had spent a number of years in prison for second degree murder.

Lessons Learned from Three Preventable Incidents

Each of these companies learned the hard way about the value of preemployment screening. The incidents described above involved employees who most likely would never have been hired if more information about them was gathered during the preemployment process. Problem individuals tend to make trouble wherever they go, so it is important to learn about and understand as much as possible about an applicant before the person is hired. Background checking is one of the preemployment tools available. There are a number of other tools, including the following.

  1. Review the applicant's resume, references, work history, and employment application.
  2. Conduct preemployment interviews.
  3. Conduct a drug test.

Application and Interview Process

The employment application is a source of a great deal of information about a potential employee. A careful review of the application may raise "red flags" that include the following:

  • An application that is incomplete or has portions that have been deliberately or inadvertently omitted
  • A carelessly filled out or messy application
  • An incomplete work history, with time gaps between changes in employment
  • A work history that doesn't make sense, with too many employment changes and/or a downward progression in employment

The applicant's resume should also be evaluated. It is generally accepted that resumes are written in a way to present the applicant in the most favorable way. The information on a resume is sometimes embellished. However, it is important to distinguish between an exaggeration and outright lies. To accomplish this, the following should be checked and verified.

  • The applicant's identity
  • Past employment
  • Education
  • Professional certifications and licenses
  • Driver's license
  • Publications
  • Honors and awards
  • References

The interview process is one of the richest sources of information about the applicant as well as a place in which "red flags" may appear. Things to evaluate during the interview include the following.

  • The applicant's approach, demeanor, and emotional state
  • Level of cooperation, openness, and truthfulness
  • Physical appearance and grooming
  • Body language and eye contact
  • Response to questions, including whether the question asked is the question that is answered, and whether too little or too much information is provided
  • The interviewer's comfort level during interactions with the applicant
  • The applicant's interest in the job

Drug Testing

One of the great tragedies in American life has been the tremendous increase in the use of illicit drugs over the past 40 years. The advent of the "hippie movement" in the mid-1960s and the glorification of drugs by recording artists and people such as Timothy Leary led to an unprecedented use of drugs that has continued to the present time. This drug use has led to a number of problems that have had an adverse impact in the work place. Among these are illnesses that affect an employee's ability to perform their job, problems with attendance and punctuality, distorted and poor judgment, financial difficulties, and associations with some of the less desirable elements of society.

Drug testing prior to employment can help identify individuals who have the potential to become problem employees. The fact that some companies and organizations include drug testing prior to employment eliminates some potential applicants, who self-select themselves out of the employment process because they are aware that they most likely would not pass the drug test. Other applicants are obviously eliminated when they fail a drug test. While drug testing cannot completely eliminate potential problem employees, it can diminish the problems associates with employee drug use.

Background Checking

The ultimate goal of the employment process is to hire an applicant with the abilities and personal qualities that are needed to do the job they are being considered for and to contribute to the organization in a positive and productive manner. Background checking is one of the most important steps in helping to achieve this goal. The following is some of the information that can and in most cases should be obtained during a background check.

  • Criminal court records can provide information on convictions for misdemeanors and felonies. Obviously an applicant with a history of criminal prosecutions involving violent behavior increases the risk that the applicant would engage in violent behavior during the course of employment. The risk of violent behavior generally increases with the recency, seriousness, and extent of the past violent behavior.
  • Civil court records can provide information on the applicant's litigation history, including whether the applicant has ever been involved in lawsuits involving fraud or breach of contract. If the applicant has owned their own business in the past, there could be litigation involving failure to pay unpaid bills or taxes, sexual harassment, false advertising, and unethical business practices. Civil litigation could also involve claims of trespassing, stalking, assault and battery, negligence, and infliction of emotional distress. Divorce proceedings may provide information on verbal and physical threats, bullying and intimidation, child abuse, and the need for restraining orders.
  • Credit records can be reviewed for financial difficulties, fiscal irresponsibility, long-term problems with creditors, and bankruptcies. This is particularly important for positions such as comptrollers, corporate officers, positions involving a high level of control, and any position in which pharmaceuticals, large amounts of cash, and other valuable assets are involved. The Fair Credit and Reporting Act places a 7-year time limit on most historical credit information and a 10-year limit in bankruptcies. State consumer laws should also be checked for limitations and restrictions.
  • Driving records are of particular importance for applicants who would be required to drive as part of the job duties. Driving records can provide information as to whether an applicant is irresponsible, unreliable, and/or prone to aggressive and dangerous behavior. Federal and state laws do place limits on the amount of information state motor vehicle departments can release. In most instances it will probably be necessary to obtain the information from the applicant, or obtain the applicant's permission to verify the information that they have provided about their driving record.
  • Medical records and physical and psychological testing can provide additional information about an applicant. However, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) and the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other laws place significant limitations in these areas.

Obtaining Preemployment Information

In some instances an organization or business may decide to develop and implement the entire preemployment screening process on their own. They would need to have the resources and knowledge base to do so. In many instances, organizations and businesses choose to utilize outside agencies for some or all of the process. The choices for outside screening agencies include the following.

  • Database companies
  • Private investigation firms
  • Security guard companies
  • Reference checking and screening companies
  • Background checking companies

Regardless of which method of preemployment screening program is developed, it is important that legal input and review be provided by the company or organization's attorneys before the program is implemented or modified. Knowledge of state and federal laws and regulations, including the Fair Credit and Reporting Act (FCRA), the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the rules and regulations of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) are essential, and may help prevent mistakes that could lead to litigation and/or significant monetary loss.

A Final Word

Twenty years ago, the workplace was perceived by employees to be considerably safer than it is today. The numerous acts of coworker-to-coworker violence reported in the media on an almost weekly basis have changed that perception. For over a decade now, employers have been developing and implementing workplace violence prevention programs. Many of these programs appear to be working, and in some instances there has been a decline in violence. From 1993 to 2002, the number of workplace homicides has dropped from 1074 to 609. Effective preemployment screening programs have, in part, helped to bring this about. Hopefully they will continue to do so in the future.


Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.

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