Background Checks on Workers: Prudent or Paranoid?

Some security experts think employee screening could help stave off disaster.
David KatzSeptember 20, 2001

Immediately following the events of September 11, employers pondering how to prevent terrorists from wreaking further devastation looked mostly at their corporate travel policies and network security. But one security expert says corporate managers might want to pay attention to their own worker rolls — to what one security expert calls “the enemy within.”

Getting a job with a U.S. company is an “ideal” way for an overseas terrorist to gain entry into the country and “blend into the community,” asserts Terrance Corley, assistant director of The Richmond Group International, an investigations and security-consulting firm that conducts employee background checks.

By working for a company in positions ranging from janitors to middle managers, Corley says, would-be terrorists can learn about building entrances and exits, the best places to hide things, and the weak points of an organization’s security. He also claims that getting the credentials needed to back up employment applications isn’t all that hard. In places like India and Kuwait, says Corley, it’s easy to obtain fake diplomas.

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Given his job, it’s not surprising that Corley recommends extensive background checks of all current and prospective employees. He says, however, that finance executives often veto such checks because of the costs.

The costs can add up, that’s for sure. For instance, Corley charges $25 to $35 for a basic, single-state check of felony and misdemeanor convictions of one U.S. employee for 7 to 10 years. A check of a U.S. employee’s creditworthiness runs $12 to $15.

Conducting background checks overseas gets even pricier. One example: The Richmond Group charges $475 for a criminal-history check of an employee from Saudi Arabia, the native country of Osama bin Laden. The bill for a credit check could amount to a whopping $3,400 because of the lack of centralized Saudi Arabian credit-rating companies.

Faked background information is extremely prevalent, contends Corley. From December 2000 to January 2001, the Richmond Group performed about 500 checks of overseas applicants for management posts at one company. About 65 percent of the applicants had provided false or misleading background information, recalls Corley, and many had criminal records.

Granted, U.S. job applicants often exaggerate their previous work experience and education as well. And as far as anyone knows, fudging on a résumé doesn’t make anyone a terrorist. But the fact that so many workers give false background information only points up the difficulty of weeding out employees with dark intentions.