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The Scarlet “T”

July 23, 2013

This spring, I came across an article titled “Retailers Track Employee Thefts in Vast Databases” in The New York Times.   The article covered how retail employers have been sharing “secret database files” that document employees previously fired for retail theft. The article reminded me of a Seinfeld episode. (It always seems to come back to Seinfeld, doesn’t it?)  In this episode, Elaine goes from doctor to doctor trying to overcome the fact that her medical chart describes her as “difficult.” The first doctor she visits takes a look at her file and then gives her a very brief and hurried examination of a rash that has been bothering her.

“This doesn’t look too serious, you should be fine,” the first doctor says and then rushes out.

Elaine tries her luck with another doctor but, upon seeing her chart, he has a similar response.

Poor Elaine. No matter what doctor she goes to see, they all have the same reaction. One negative, and possibly untrue, description in her file prevents her from getting the care she desperately seeks.investigation

As humorous as this situation is through the lens of a sitcom, imagine if a similar situation occurred in the real world – in the case of the article, the retail world.  For instance, you apply for a retail position, and a file or database somewhere listed “theft.” Even more to the point, imagine that what was written in this secret database wasn’t accurate or was exaggerated—or wasn’t actually even about you.

And that’s my concern with databases like the one described in The New York Times article.

As a hiring manager myself, I can appreciate what is being attempted here. Information that employers share about former employees who engaged in counterproductive or illegal behaviors, such as retail theft, can be extraordinarily valuable. After all, why would you want to hire somebody else’s previous problem and make that person your problem too?

The answer is, “You wouldn’t.”  But, can you really rely on this information?  If you’re an employer and you query this database and learn that a candidate was previously terminated for theft, would you take additional steps to verify that this is:   a) accurate or b) absolutely pertained to this particular candidate (and not someone else with the same or similar name), especially when the role that he or she is applying for is likely a minimum-wage position for which you screen 100s or 1000s of candidates?  Again, the answer is, “You wouldn’t.”

As the article’s author alludes to, the inability for affected candidates to contest the information, a pivotal right afforded to them for employment practices involving background checks under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, makes this a questionable and potentially unlawful practice. Essentially, this is background check. How can it NOT be?

With that in mind, what’s the alternative? There are a lot of exceptional, easy, and inexpensive pre-employment assessments, including those that screen for employee reliability and integrity. The better ones are not so overt to obviously measure counterproductive work behaviors such as retail theft.  Rather, well-constructed assessments use a combination of bio-data, personality, and situational judgment to derive valid inferences about potential employees’ fit for the job.

My advice? Be cautious when browsing databases like these to make hiring decisions, with the clear understanding that ANYTHING that is used to make an employment decision must also comply with established employment law. Err on the side of caution and rely on validated, legally defensible pre-employment tests to ensure that you are making the right decision in your hiring process.

Doug Wolf Doug Wolf was the Chief Executive Officer at Select International, which was acquired by PSI. He works extensively with organizations that have large‐scale, national and global staffing needs. His expertise includes competency‐based job analysis, selection system design, validation, applicant sourcing, automated testing, virtual job auditions, structured interviewing, applicant tracking, reducing risk in the selection process, OFCCP and EEOC compliance reporting, and turnover analyses.