Hovering in the Background

With food tampering becoming an ever-present threat, operators need to be aware of every possible way to prevent problems. One tactic many may not have thought of is screening potential hires. Doing so allows operators to potentially find people who may have a history of behavior that could impact the safety of employees and customers.

In recent years, reports of food tampering have ranged from packaged meat and beverage contamination in retail settings to deliberate acts of meal spoilage in foodservice. It’s these sorts of incidences that could cause foodservice operators to be afraid. To be very afraid.

Fortunately, while it’s not possible to eliminate the potential for such threats entirely, it’s becoming increasingly necessary to try—and conducting background checks on potential hires is an effective tool toward achieving that goal.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that retail food store and foodservice establishment operators consider, among other things, employee screening—before, at and after hiring. The federal agency urges employers to examine the background of “all staff (including seasonal, temporary, contract and volunteer staff, whether hired directly or through a recruitment firm) as appropriate to their position, considering candidates’ access to sensitive areas of the facility and the degree to which they will be supervised and other relevant factors.”

The FDA advises operators to:

  • Obtain and verify work references, addresses and phone numbers.
  • Participate in one of the pilot programs managed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Social Security Administration.
  • Have local law enforcement or a contract service provider perform criminal background checks when necessary.

Screening should, FDA adds, “be applied equally to all staff, regardless of race, national origin, religion, and citizenship or immigration status.”

Fact checkers: Employers have the right to conduct criminal background checks in-house, yet many prefer to hire outside experts to handle the task. One caveat: the Fair Credit Reporting Act requires an employer to obtain written authorization from a job applicant to do a credit or background check if an outside company will be doing it.

Beyond that, if the applicant is not hired, the employer has an obligation to tell him the reason, and to reveal the name and address of the service that furnished the information.

“We do drug checks for all general employees,” says Judy Lucas, spokeswoman for Buffalo, N.Y.–based Delaware North Cos. “For management, we do background, financial and criminal checks.” The firm, whose divisions include Sportservice, Travel Hospitality Services and Parks & Resorts, contracts with The Carco Group Inc., an investigative and security consulting practice based in Holtsville, N.Y.

“Basically you’re trying to find the folks who have a history of behavior that could negatively impact the safety of employees and customers,” says Jerry Castoral, Carco Group’s vice president of sales and marketing.

Such background checks are likely to unearth relevant details about past activity, but they don’t guarantee an employee won’t eventually do something harmful. “There is nothing to prevent someone from snapping one day and deciding to do something bad,” says Castoral. “The terrorists of 9/11 were the perfect example. If you did a background check (on them) you wouldn’t have found anything derogatory. But the idea is to find someone who might not be a good fit for the organization.”

Calling in experts: Most large organizations will outsource employee background checks to a third party “just because it’s an intricate type of process,” Castoral explains.

In the beginning, companies simply asked for references. “That was a precursor to formal background screening through third parties,” says Castoral. Today, the variety of reports that can be done creates a mosaic of information about prospective employees. Says Castoral, “It’s not a single component you’re looking at. You’re taking into account the actual interview, the prior experience, the background checks, prior tendencies…all those components put together help to draw a picture of that person.”

There is no shortage of firms to hire. “The first thing you want to ask about is compliance,” suggests Kevin Prendergast, president of Research Associates Inc. in Cleveland. “Do they understand the privacy laws and issues that regulate the industry, both on the national and state-by-state level? There are different state laws, there is the Fair Credit Reporting Act, and there are a whole bunch of issues out there that, if you don’t get them right, will cause you problems.”

Operators should also check the firm’s own references. “People can tell you anything,” Prendergast points out. “They’ll tell you their turnaround time is four days, and then half the time you get your results in 10 or 12 days. Are they able to deliver what they say? The best people to tell you that are their existing clients.”

Tread carefully: Pre-employment inquiries can prove a legal nightmare for employers who act first and think later. Many federal and state laws protect applicants from impermissible inquiries. These generally have no bearing on his or her ability to perform the essential functions of the position for which they are being considered.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) cautions that pre-employment inquiries concerning an applicant’s age, race, color, religion, national origin or disability may be regarded as evidence of discrimination.

Pre-employment inquiries are considered discriminatory if they satisfy the following two-prong test: The inquiry tends to affect members of a protected class differently than it does other applicants; and the inquiry is not justified by a bona fide occupational qualification or business-related job necessity.   

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