Pre-employment screening protects your practice and your clients

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Don't put your veterinary practice at risk. Find out about job applicants before they turn into team members.

The National Law Journal called it one of the "top 100 verdicts of 2007": A truck driver working for a hazardous waste company in Texas caused an accident that led to a man's death. A jury awarded $20.7 million to the deceased's estate, agreeing with the plaintiff that the employer was negligent in hiring the driver without adequately checking his drug use or driving record.

It happens in the veterinary profession, too. A veterinary practice hires a young woman who presents herself as a qualified and experienced veterinarian. She's worked three years for another practice and seems to be a good match. But after conducting a background check, the practice management is shocked to learn that she doesn't have a license to practice veterinary medicine. The woman completed two years of veterinary school, dropped out, and still got a job as a veterinarian in a corporate practice.

Hard to believe? It happens. Here's another true story: A prospective employee seemed to be matching up well to a veterinary practice's needs and goals, but the practice played it safe and ran a background check. The managers learned that the applicant had been convicted of embezzling from a former employer.

Both of these hiring scenarios could have proven unfortunate for these practices, but—luckily—in these two cases, a background check helped avert professional and financial disaster. Unfortunately, not all veterinary practices are so cautious.

According to a study conducted in the fall of 2009 by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 73 percent of HR professionals surveyed said they performed a criminal background check on all job candidates. Nineteen percent did background checks on selected candidates, and 7 percent performed no background checks. It's estimated that less than 10 percent of veterinary practices conduct any kind of background check at all.

As a practice owner, you have at least three precious things that need protecting: your clients, your patients, and your employees. How well are you shielding them? Your practice is your livelihood now and will provide the economic resources you need for retirement in the future. How well are you protecting your most important financial investment?

Employees of veterinary practices have relatively easy access to both money and controlled drugs. With so much on the line, it's hard to say why more owners don't perform background checks and pre-employement drug screening. With the average cost of a background check less than $100 and basic pre-employment drug screenings at around $25, you can afford to cut your risk of hiring a potential disaster-in-waiting.

So what do you need to know to get started? Let's begin by discussing your rights as a hiring employer and the rights of a potential employee under the law.

LAWS AND REGULATIONS VARY

You've probably heard on the news lately a lot of discussion about employers' rights to conduct background checks—especially credit and criminal background checks. Both advocates and opponents have strong viewpoints, and states vary in terms of what you can and can't do. Plus, this is an area that's on its way to becoming more heavily regulated and controlled.

In some states, you need to do a background check or drug test before a working interview; in others, you must extend an employment offer before conducting any type of background check.

A good rule of thumb is this: Employers are allowed to do background checks concerning anything an employee will be involved with or exposed to on the job. However, you can't go wrong by checking with your state labor board about specific guidelines.

If an employee will be driving for you, you're entitled to check his or her driving record. If an employee will handle money, do a credit check.If you're hiring a manager, you can do both credit and criminal background checks. But be sure to do these background checks on every candidate at the same point in the interview process to avoid any type of discrimination. In fact, it may be helpful to attach a release form for the background check and drug screen to the employment application. You can get these forms from companies that provide these services. But what type of company does background checks and drug screenings?

Not all pre-employment screening companies are alike. A few years ago Entrepreneur magazine listed pre-employment screening as a growth industry. And that's exactly what it has been, which means there are many companies to choose from. Unfortunately, it's also a fragmented industry with some large companies as well as "boutique" organizations. To make things even more complicated, there's not a lot of standardization in the industry. However, that's all about to change for the better.

Know your hiring do's and don'ts

The National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS) would like its accreditation to become a seal of approval businesses can rely on. According to its mission statement on its website at napbs.com, the organization exists to "promote ethical business practices, promote compliance with the Fair Credit Reporting Act, and foster awareness of issues related to consumer protection and privacy rights within the background screening industry." The association provides programs and training to help its members better serve and support clients and to "maintain standards of excellence in the background screening industry." The organization will be accrediting its first group of official members this year.

And there are additional options. If you're more comfortable with an established firm, three companies exceeding $100 million annually offer background screening:

> Altegrity Inc. is a privately owned company in New York. It was created from the merger of several companies: USIS, Kroll, and HireRight.

> CoreLogic Inc. is an amalgamation of information services–related companies located in California.

> LexisNexis Screening Solutions is a business unit of LexisNexis Group in Miamisburg, Ohio. It acquired ChoicePoint in February 2008.

No matter which company you choose, be sure to check accreditation and references before paying for any of its services or information.

You'll first need to establish yourself as a legitimate business. Screening companies require this to prevent individuals from requesting background information on just anyone, which helps protect people's right to privacy. The company will send you a list of the different background screens it offers. You can request reports on previous employment and professional references, employment verification for five years, education verification, professional licensure verification, employment credit history, driving record, criminal search, and so on. Each report is priced separately and ranges from $12 to $59. Once you request a report, it may take up to three days to receive results, depending on which report you select.

PRE-EMPLOYMENT DRUG TESTING

Just as important as background screening is pre-employment drug testing. Veterinary practices are easy prey for someone who abuses drugs—whether they steal drugs or the cash to support the addiction. Most practices don't have sufficient internal controls on their money or reconcile their controlled drugs as carefully as they should. Because of this, drug testing needs to be a part of any veterinary practice's official procedural policy.

Pre-employment drug screening can be started immediately in most states; however, some have specific requirements that you must meet before introducing this policy. Check with your state labor board. Once you're confident that you're operating within local guidelines, add a release form for pre-employment drug testing to your application form. This will likely result in some applications not being returned to you—which will help save you from hiring a drug user. Also, state in your employment ads that a pre-employment drug test is required. And finally, apply the screening policy universally to all applicants at the same point in the official interview process.

Several private companies can do the pre-employment drug tests for you. Again, you'll need to set up an account with your chosen firm, decide which drug tests you want performed—the company will help you with this—and obtain release forms. When you have applicants who reach the point in the interview process where they need to be screened, instruct them to go to the drug testing office to submit a urine or blood sample. You'll usually get the results by that evening. It's that simple.

Every veterinary practice, regardless of size, needs to incorporate background screening and pre-employment drug tests into its hiring process. It may help you to avoid a major disaster down the road—after all, you don't want to be like that Texas trucking company and learn this lesson $20 million too late.

Mark Opperman, CVPM, owns veterinary consulting firm VMC Inc. in Evergreen, Colo. Please send questions or comments to ve@advanstar.com.

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