A quick search can be a good insurance policy when hiring.

Mickey probably seemed like a nice enough fellow. After all, he was selling vacuum cleaners for Kirby, a household name in the vacuum cleaner world. The bad news was that the name recognition of Kirby resulted in one of his customers lowering her guard. While her children slept in the next room, Mickey assaulted her.

Mickey was never actually convicted of this crime. Why? Because it was much easier to simply revoke his parole for a previous sexual offense. In fact, it takes about two minutes to find that Mickey's record included three robberies, two thefts, two drug-related convictions, one assault and three convictions of indecency with a child. I haven't met the man but I'll wager that he's a friendly sort with a nice smile and a quick wit.

In a subsequent lawsuit, Kirby ultimately paid the victim about $200,000 and narrowly missed punitive damages of another $800,000 or so. Kirby vacuums are among the most expensive you can buy, but that's still a lot of vacuum cleaners - not to mention the hit on their reputation. If I had been on the jury, the numbers may well have been higher!

The Importance Of Background Checks

This whole misadventure could have been easily stopped in its tracks if the person who hired Mickey had taken two minutes - maybe it would have been five minutes back in 1999 when the Internet was so much slower - to simply check Mickey's background. I doubt that anyone in the business of in-home sales would have hired Mickey if they knew of his record. I'd even think twice about hiring him as a shovel-hand in a coal mine!

Pre-employment background checks ought to be the standard in the plumbing and air-conditioning service industry. In fact, some states are enrolling laws that require in-home service companies to perform background checks. Besides simply being a good citizen, there are other reasons to perform checks.

Background checks save money. In the Kirby case, spending five dollars and maybe five minutes could have saved them hundreds of thousands of dollars not to mention the trauma that their customer endured. That's simple enough math but let's look at some other issues, too.

Several states now have laws that prevent convicts from holding trade licenses. How would you feel if, after investing four years of training and educating an apprentice, he or she couldn't qualify for a license because of his or her criminal background? If you had performed a background check, you would have seen that this relationship was going to come to a dead end and, as such, never started down that path to begin with. “But,” you may say, “this kid was sharp, friendly and an all-around great kid! He deserves another chance!” I won't argue with you. But I'm not the judge. Knowing the score ahead of time gives you an opportunity to present your case to the local powers.

If your judgment of character was correct, you may get a double payoff by providing him or her a second chance as well as hiring someone who will most likely become a very loyal team member. One caveat, though: You are not in the rehabilitation business, you're in the service business. Before you start getting all mushy and altruistic about rehabilitating someone with a criminal record, make sure you have decent counsel and assistance. Once you know the background and you go ahead and hire the person, things could look very bad if an “incident” occurs.

Background checks can help you make wise training investments but they can also improve teamwork in your company. Teamwork starts with trust and respect. If the applicant's record shows no “crimes against persons” but does show a string of writing bad checks, theft or similar “bloodless” crimes, you may think you have an opportunity to do good. Nevertheless, even if your applicant has repented, turned over a new leaf and never strays from the straight and narrow, the first time something turns up missing from a tool box, or worse, from a customer's home, you're going to be in a real tough position.

Do You Trust Your Employees?

Although the U.S. Constitution says that a person is innocent until proven guilty, human nature doesn't agree. Just ask yourself, “Would I hand this person a bag of money and a set of keys and tell him or her to use my car to take this money to the bank?” Here's another question: “Would I feel good about having this person alone in my home?” If your answer is “no,” then perhaps it would be best to let someone in the rock-excavating business give this applicant a “second chance.”

Now let's get down to the real crux of the matter. Our customers need to trust us. If they don't feel comfortable leaving the baby-sitting money on the dresser and the jewelry on the vanity, then how are they going to trust us to offer the best solutions to their service problems? You can't guarantee that an employee won't commit his or her first criminal offense in a customer's home but you can guarantee that you're not sending a convicted criminal in the first place. It's just too easy to check, so there's no excuse not to.

Where background checks can really save your hide is if something does go terribly wrong. Contractors spend huge sums of money each year on insurance policies, just in case something goes wrong. If something criminal happens, a copy of a clean criminal record in the employee file can at least prove that you were diligent enough to check. In Texas, according to a law enrolled on Sept. 1, 2003, it's enough to establish that you weren't negligent in hiring. There's not a cheaper insurance policy anywhere.

How To Check For Free

Background checks are easy to perform and typically don't cost much. In fact, as a PM reader, you have three free searches. Through a special arrangement with Service Roundtable, you can logon to Backgroundchecks.com to claim your background checks. Here's how to do it:

1. Point your browser to http://www1.backgroundchecks.com/ (Yes, that is a “1” after the www. You need to type it in just like you see it.)

2. At the top of the page, login with these codes:

Username: servicedemo

Password: roundtable

3. Once you're in, you'll be able to set up an account with three free searches. Even though these searches use public data, you should get a release if you're going to search your employee's background.

I won't advise you on how to react if you find something bad, but you need to be aware of this: You may have customers who will run a search on your employee the minute they get his business card. Do you want a customer to be the first one to tell you that you've hired a convict?

Hot Topic Discussion

Join our "Hot Topic" online discussion. The next discussion will be, "Should contractors offer a second chance to someone who has made a few mistakes in life?" If you have an opinion and an e-mail address, you're invited to join us in this "Hot Topic" online discussion. You're even welcome to "eavesdrop" if you don't care to join.

To participate, simply send a blank e-mail to hottopic@serviceroundtable.com. You'll see firsthand how e-mail discussions work and, at the same time, have an opportunity to influence your industry. Note: The discussion will begin on Nov. 20 and will take place over the following two weeks, so sign up as soon as possible.