Trustworthy, qualified employees are an essential part of any business. This is especially true of small businesses, where every employee counts and where interpersonal dynamics often assume heightened importance. As a result, pre-employment screening programs have become an increasingly visible part of the business landscape. According to a 2000 survey by the American Management Association, 43 percent of responding members test prospective employees in job skills, psychological fitness, and/or basic math and literacy competencies. Screening programs generally also include some combination of reference and credit checks, verification of employment, investigations into any criminal activity (where allowed by law), and physical/drug testing. After all, the time to ensure an employee is trustworthy and qualified is during the hiring process, rather than on the job. Screening programs can assist in ensuring a proper fit between employer and employee. "A pre-employment test that costs less than $10 can sometimes save a company the thousands it costs to replace a bad match, or the legal fees to defend against liability lawsuits for negligence in hiring a troubled or troublesome employee," wrote Gilbert Nicholson in Workforce. "Tests range from evaluating cognitive skills to identifying personality traits, and can help employers avoid bad apples and match good ones to the right jobs."

Despite the potential value of screening programs, not all companies are equally needful of such initiatives. For example, some businesses engaged in industries with traditionally high turnover rates, such as restaurants, may determine through cost-benefit analysis that the benefits of such a program do not warrant the upfront expenditure of money that could be pocketed or used for other aspects of the enterprise.

If your company does choose to employ workforce screening, it can follow two different routes: create and carry out your own test or use an established test and/or screening company. "Some companies are so specialized, it makes sense to tailor their own instrument to the unique features of their organization," said one testing executive in Workforce. "But that usually requires a company with a human-relations team skilled in test development." In addition, some small business owners choose to execute their own screening programs, but use existing tests to do so (the Buros Institute at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln maintains a Tests in Print resource that lists more than 2,900 commercially available screening tests). Finally, many businesses prefer to outsource the entire program to companies that specialize in screening. When hiring a screening company to check out prospective employees, it is important that the company itself be trustworthy, competent, and capable of shaping its testing programs to the client's specific needs. A small business would be well advised to find out what services the company offers, how the company goes about getting its information, and whether or not the company uses its own services. It may also be helpful to speak with some of the company's long-time clients.

Companies that utilize screening programs should also have a thorough knowledge of local, state, and federal laws against discrimination. These may impact both the questions you ask of prospective employees as well as additional investigations (reference checks, etc.) of them. It also makes it important for companies to ensure that their aptitude tests are job-related and implemented uniformly. Many local and state governments have laws on the books which prevent an employer from asking questions about criminal convictions. A business should note the difference between an arrest and a conviction; merely being arrested proves nothing.

In addition to ensuring qualifications, proper screening of prospective employees supports a business's hiring practices in the face of possible lawsuits. "With the tort of negligent hiring now recognized in a majority of the states, employers have been forced to defend a growing number of suits seeking redress for crimes committed by employees, usually thefts or assaults that victimize customers or co-workers," wrote David Shaffer and Ronald Schmidt in "Personality Testing in Employment." Courts may hold companies responsible for injuries their employees inflict on others while on the job. Companies found liable in a negligent hiring suit may be held responsible for punitive damages, medical bills, lost wages, etc. For a small business, such a suit could be potentially devastating. But it should be noted that if a prospective employee has a criminal record, a company's liability in a lawsuit after employment depends on the relevance of the crime to the job.

Fortunately, legal experts say that legal liability on either of these two fronts is unlikely, provided the company in question takes care in creating, maintaining, and monitoring the various aspects of its screening program. To best ensure protection against legal trouble, business owners are urged to consult a specialist in employment law before establishing any of the following potential elements of a screening program:


Employers should review resumes and employment histories for gaps in employment. In regards to references, the employer should be sure to contact specific business references as opposed to merely friends and family of the prospective employee. Finally, companies may choose to contact other individuals not listed as references such as previous co-workers, who may provide additional background on the employee. This check may be subject to local or state laws or require the consent of the applicant.

CREDIT AND VEHICLE CHECKS These may be done through credit agencies used by banks, stores, and others. While checking an applicant's credit and vehicle records is not conclusive regarding qualifications for employment, these records may give an indication of an applicant's dependability or honesty.

CRIMINAL RECORDS As noted, these may be subject to local or state laws against discrimination. Small business owners and managers also must weigh whether the applicant's previous arrest or crime would have a direct bearing on the work that he or she would be doing.

IQ OR PERSONALITY TESTS Increasing numbers of businesses are choosing to use personality or IQ tests in addition to interviewing, in order to round out or verify their impressions of a prospective employee. Outside agencies can run a battery of tests on applicants, providing employers with profiles on each of them. A small business can also take advantage of current software or standardized tests to handle at least a portion of these, which can be more labor-intensive. Many companies choose to outsource testing and narrow down the number of applicants, reserving valuable time for personal interviews with candidates deemed most suitable.

PHYSICAL SCREENING OR DRUG TESTS These are often handled by a qualified clinic or laboratory. Prospective employees provide blood or urine samples to the contracted agency. The company is then sent results and can make a determination regarding employment.


Chapman, Elwood N. Human Relations in Small Business . Crisp Publications, 1994.

Gruber, Stephanie. "Once Burned." Inc. October 15, 1995.

Messmer, Max. "The Delicate Art of Reference Checking." Business Credit. May 1999.

Nicholson, Gilbert. "Screen and Glean." Workforce. October 2000.

Siegel, Paul J., and Margaret R. Bryant. "A Hiring Checklist." HR Focus. April 1997.

Spragins, Ellyn E. "Screening New Hires: Employee-Screening Companies Offer One of the Cheapest and Fastest Ways to Help You Hire Successfully." Inc . August 1992.

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