New step for job applicants: FBI checks
New step for job applicants: FBI checks
By Ron Scherer | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
NEW YORK - Who are you?
In the wake of Sept. 11, an increasing number of companies - prompted in
part by the government - are rolling out the fingerprint pads to find
out. They are zipping the ink stains over to the FBI, calling the
Immigration and Naturalization Service to check on legal status, and
hiring outside screeners to make sure job résumés are accurate. The
scramble to check history is stretching from limo drivers to airline
pilots to chefs.
Proponents of the new snooping say it may help root out potential
problems by finding people with a past criminal history or fake
Opponents fear it will result in many people being fired for youthful
indiscretions they have already served time for. It is an issue likely
to find its way into the courts because real jobs - and livelihoods -
are at stake.
"This is probably the most security conscious we have been in the last
60 years," says Phil Anderson of the Center for Strategic and
International Studies in Washington.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the firms that specialize in
screening potential employees for other companies. At ChoicePoint, based
in metro Atlanta, "the phones lit up" right after Sept. 11, says Dave
Cook, vice president in charge of sales and marketing. "People said
we're not looking broad enough or deep enough at our employees."
The searches are turning up some unpleasant surprises. Mr. Cook says his
firm has identified hundreds of major thefts and murders that may not
have been reported on employment applications.
In the past, banks, defense contractors, and those who were required by
law, such as schools and day-care centers, did the checks. Now, the
universe has expanded. For example, the temp business is now checking
for criminal violations. "Their clients are requiring it, so they are
doing it," says Albert Bueno, president of RSI, based in Hollywood, Fla.
Last month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued proposed
security guidelines that include background checks for the 11 million
people who work in the food business. And the airline industry faced a
deadline to fingerprint any worker with access to a secure area.
The fingerprints will be sent to the FBI for what is called a "national
agency check." This is the same initial screening that the military
performs to verify criminal records and citizenship. "The FBI database
is pretty good," says Mr. Anderson. "If you could do that for everyone,
I think it would at least narrow the focus and reduce the risk."
However, Gordon Adams, director of security-policy studies at George
Washington University, calls it "probably a good idea that's run
slightly amok." He worries that it will result in long delays in people
getting jobs and "the longest line for [security] approval you've ever
The increased security is something organized labor is keeping its eye
on, says John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO. Although he recognizes
the need for tighter security, "We will be striving to make changes to
whatever might be onerous on workers and on their work careers," he
The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) estimates that up to 1 million
aviation employees who have access to secure areas will be
fingerprinted, because no screeners had FBI background checks prior to
1998 and no pilots prior to 1996. At the end of December, the Federal
Aviation Administration (FAA) sent out a list of 28 felony convictions
that could disqualify an airline employee - such as a pilot, mechanic,
or ramp worker - from working in secure areas.
John Mazor, a spokesman for ALPA, worries that some airport workers will
be disqualified because of domestic problems with a spouse or some
long-ago indiscretion. "There are situations where otherwise good people
could find themselves put on that [disqualification] list," says Mr.
Bill Engle, who was an executive at 20th Century Fox, knows all about
the effects of background checks. In 1978, he was convicted of pandering
- that is, running an illegal massage parlor in Orange County, Calif. He
served a jail sentence. But he didn't tell Fox that information when he
filled out his job application.
Mr. Engle, a former police officer, was promoted four times during his
seven years at Fox. As chief of security, he says he discovered various
alleged wrongdoings, including what he thought were illegal background
searches of celebrities and employees. He put it all together in a
notebook and brought them to his boss. "He almost jumped away and said,
'I don't want anything to do with it,' " recalls Engle.
Shortly thereafter, Fox fired him for not reporting that he had been
convicted of the felony. They ended up suing each other, with Fox
dredging up as much about his past as they could. The firing "was very
shattering to me," says Engle, now an executive at another company. Erin
Cooper Rotgin, the attorney for Fox who litigated the case, did not
return phone calls.
Privacy-rights groups worry that such background searches may result in
many people losing their jobs for past wrongs. "My long-term worry is
that we are creating a larger and larger number of people who are
disenfranchised from all societal activity, but most important cannot
get work," says Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights
Clearinghouse in San Diego.
Lawyers involved in labor law warn that employers are walking a
tightrope. "If they react to information that is stale and unrelated to
a job, they do so at their own peril," says Gerald Skoning, a lawyer
with Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago. "If you don't hire as a result of a
background check, you may be sued for invasion of privacy, or wrongful
But Mr. Skoning says firms also have to weigh the risk of not acting on
an employee's past. "If there is a dangerous situation, such as a
nuclear accident, the victims could sue the company for negligent
The restaurant industry, meanwhile, says it doesn't really think the FDA
intends it to comply with the guidelines. "Even those who wrote those
guidelines don't have FBI background checks," says Steve Grover, of the
National Restaurant Association in Washington. "We are going to make
sure that everything is secure, but some of those recommendations do go
a bit far."
Paul Bresson, a spokesman for the FBI, says that doing criminal checks
on everyone involved in the food business would strain his agency's
In fact, Mr. Bresson says the FBI can't do criminal checks on an
individual unless there is some kind of law mandating them. "If a law
passes, he says, "of course we will."