If You Don’t Ask, You May Not Find Out

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Paul searched the local classifieds and found a job listing that piqued his interest. He called the special number and had a favorable five-minute telephone interview. Told to “come on down,” he arrived the next morning wearing his Sunday best. Neither his neatly coifed hair, excellent hygiene, nor freshly pressed blue suit revealed the lurking threat within. He filled out the application without requiring special assistance. He included letters of references from his college professors and former employers. The most significant letter from his most recent job was a glowing reference. It stated that Paul was a great worker, an even better supervisor, and did not offer any negative information about his past.

Paul was ushered into a room where the human resources manager interviewed him for about 40 minutes. He had all the right answers. “He was exactly what they were looking for,” the HR manager later said.

A few months after being hired, the real Paul Calden surfaced. He told several coworkers that he was from the planet Mars. He heard voices telling him to prepare to kill his coworkers. He said he required complete blood transfusions daily. At first his supervisors and colleagues thought he was joking. But, Paul was no joke.

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Concerned about his daily disappearances, the company executives began to question Paul. His outburst of threats alarmed HR. Then one day a female coworker ran into the personnel office yelling, “He’s out to get me!” Her mascara smeared from crying, she explained that Paul had threatened her in the parking garage when she inadvertently parked in the unassigned parking space where he normally parked. She was extremely frightened and her sobbing could be heard throughout HR.

The HR manager conferred with other management. They needed to be fair and investigate the complaint. Paul denied the allegation in the calmest of tones. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. As is often the case, not knowing who to believe, the company decided to wait and see and simply “keep an eye” on Paul.

Eventually, the company had enough. When Paul was unable to provide a doctor’s note explaining his excessive tardiness, he was fired. He returned eight months later to do his own firing, with a gun. Three senior executives died. Two others, including the head of HR, survived despite being shot in the head or chest.

The Hiring Dilemma

Most would say the employer did everything possible to screen Paul Calden. In the litigation aftermath, Paul’s former employer who gave the glowing reference revealed that they had forced Paul to resign over similar threatening behavior, including bringing a gun to work during a meeting with his supervisor. It was the same gun he used on his killing spree. If they did everything correct, then why didn’t their screening protocol uncover his longstanding history of violence, including past workplace violence?

One of the most significant missed opportunities in human resources, loss prevention, and security departments is related to the screening of applicants for employment. Today, HR primarily handles this important function, perhaps because LP and security professionals have failed to make senior management aware of the natural fit between security skills and pre-employment screening.

Many retailers do little screening due to high turnover, poor store manager training, and a tight labor market. It’s not uncommon to hear operations express an attitude like “a warm body is better than a ‘CLOSED’ sign on the door.”

Another highly publicized case involving a nationally known theme park illustrates the point. A 20-year-old, part time seasonal worker raped a 16-year-old coworker. The victim was impregnated. The suspect was arrested. He confessed to having sex with the coworker on duty in the theme park. He said it was consensual. He subsequently pled guilty and was sentenced to a lengthy prison term for rape. The victim filed suit for negligent hiring, among other claims.

In a deposition, the HR manager revealed a disparity in how seasonal part time workers were screened in comparison to full-time employees. HR individually interviewed applicants for full-time positions. These applicants were given pre-employment tests. Criminal, civil, and credit history records were searched. The expert for the plaintiff even testified that this system was an excellent demonstration of how an employer should investigate the background of its applicants.

Yet, the HR manager further testified at trial that the company only had the applicant for seasonal part-time employment fill out an application and submit to a group interview. The purpose of the interview was to look for customer service skills or happy looking applicants. Despite their company motto, “We care about who we hire,” the HR manager told the jury that she was relatively inexperienced in how to “get the goods from applicants.”

The loss prevention manager testified that the company had not sought his counsel in the hiring process, except to interview candidates who would handle large sums of cash. The jury sided with the plaintiff and her expert and awarded her almost one-half million dollars after legal costs were tallied.

New and Improved Screening Protocols

Loss prevention managers should educate themselves as well as their HR and operations partners about the potential for applicants to admit misconduct and the questionnaires that focus on this strategy. The LP manager can then help develop new protocols for the pre-employment process and make strategic recommendations on screening tools that will safeguard the retailers assets, including customers, employees,

  1. Review the employment application form and make suggestions to HR and legal on how to improve it.
  2. Create recommendations for how LP can help HR select vendors to perform criminal history searches.
  3. Develop protocols to determine how extensive criminal history searches should be performed.
  4. Develop guidelines and forms that specify what questions must be asked when making reference inquiries. For example, prior employers should be asked, “Was this applicant ever fired or forced to resign his or her employment because of acts or threats of violence?”
  5. Put former employers on notice that they can be held liable for failing to disclose information about former employees.
  6. Develop training programs on how to interview applicants, using biographical questionnaire results, applications, references, and other resources. Help HR learn skills in body language(kinesics) and questioning techniques.
  7. Establish the practice that LP should interview job candidates who will be placed in extremely sensitive positions, such as store managers, where they could potentially expose the company to increased liability.
  8. Make recommendations on the use of biographical questionnaires or other types of employment tests that ask hard-hitting questions of applicants. Some HR professionals have a built-in fear of tests. It will be easier to convince them to use questionnaires that ask for job-related and objective background information.

Don’t Rely on Just Part of the Story

As you develop pre-employment screening strategies, don’t overlook tools and procedures that solicit admission of past behavior from both the applicant and past employers. If you ask not, you will never uncover the real history of violence, criminality, drug use, thefts, terminations, sexual harassment, discrimination, and a host of other potential landmines that can be avoided.

Some executives may want to turn a blind eye because they have never experienced workplace violence. Show them the headlines.

“Shooter Kills 5” was the headline in the Tampa Tribune New Year’s Eve 1999. The article read “A Tampa hotel worker described as having ‘evil in his face’ went on a shooting frenzy Thursday, leaving five people dead and three wounded before he was captured, police said. The rampage left a waterfront hotel in chaos, vacationers scurrying for safety and visiting football fans stranded outside their hotel room.”

Interestingly, the Radisson Bay Harbor hotel, where Silvio Izquierdo Leyva went on his shooting spree on New Year’s Eve, is only two blocks from where Paul Calden left his carnage a few years earlier. Coincidence? Yes, that it happened in such close proximity. No, because violent applicants become our violent employees. And for the company, willful blindness is often punished by juries as gross negligence.

The media reported that the former employers of Paul Calden paid over $50million to the plaintiffs to settle their claims of negligent hiring, retention, and security because they never asked about his past history of violence. Ultimately, Paul Calden left two more victims…his two former employers’ pocketbooks…in the wake of his murderous rampage.

Don’t be the next victim because you forgot to ask the right questions, the right way, and always before making the hiring decision. You only get one chance to make the right hiring decision, or you may end up with months or years of dealing with the unqualified or violent employee. All because you didn’t ask.

One Strategy for Uncovering Past Misconduct

The applicant is the best he or she will ever be when applying for a job. He looks his best. She smells her best. They both claim to be the best. With more and more retailers conducting drug testing, checking criminal histories, verifying references, and often conducting multiple interviews, why are so many frustrated because of increasing losses due to uncontrolled turnover, shrinkage, and increasing workplace violence? One possibility is a commonly overlooked approach in applicant screening protocols…self-admission.

Loss prevention experts agree that the best predictor for future misconduct is past misconduct. But, will applicants admit to past criminal or violent behavior if asked? Surprisingly, yes, as long as the questions are properly presented. If you ask not, you receive not.

Most employment questionnaires attempt to predict future behavior based on the applicant’s attitudes about drugs, theft, or past employers. Other questionnaires attempt to predict future work performance based on the applicant’s personality traits. Few of the most commonly used screening tools are based on getting applicants to admit past misbehavior.

One major retailer who does use an admission-based questionnaire to ask applicants about their history of violence, criminal behavior (not just convictions), current drug use, theft, turnover, and work performance compiled the following revealing statistics:

  • 2 per 1,000 admitted to an unsolved murder.
  • 1 percent admitted being wanted by the police or courts.
  • 7 percent admitted committing felonies in the previous five years.
  • 9 percent admitted criminal convictions in the previous seven years that were not listed on the employment application.
  • 6 percent reported to a probation or parole officer.
  • 1 percent admitted criminal convictions for pedophilia (sexual contact with children).
  • 4 percent admitted criminal convictions involving theft, fraud, white-collar crime, credit cards, or stolen property.
  • 85 out of the first 5,000 applicants admitted to a murder.
  • 1 percent admitted being forced to leave a job for threatening to kill coworkers.
  • 11 percent admitted receiving written reprimands in the previous 24 months from a supervisor.
  • 1 percent admitted taking a gun to work with plans of killing a supervisor in the previous 24 months.
  • 2 percent threatened employees with violence in the previous 24 months.
  • 1 percent threatened supervisors with violence in the previous 24 months.
  • 1 percent hit a customer in the previous two years.
  • 1 percent used illegal drugs on the job in the previous month.
  • 5 percent smoked marijuana weekly.
  • 2 percent used cocaine in the previous month.
  • 1 percent sold illegal drugs in the previous 24 months.
  • 3 percent gave sweetheart deals (free food or merchandise) to friends or relatives in the previous 12 months.
  • 3 percent admitted being in trouble more than once at work in the previous 12 months for not doing his or her job.
  • 4 percent admitted working from an open cash register to steal in the previous two years.
  • 6 percent admitted stealing over $24 from work in the previous 24 months.
  • 2 percent stole over $100 from work in the previous 24 months.
  • 1 percent admitted sexually harassing coworkers in the previous 24 months.
  • 1 percent admitted discriminating against customers orcoworkers in violation of EEO guidelines in the previous two years.

These are applicants the retailer might have hired if not for using an objective biographical pre-employment questionnaire.

Whether or not an employer uses a questionnaire to uncover bad behavior, managers must remember that the applicant is the single best source for information. The most common reasons hiring managers give for not asking hard hitting questions are “I didn’t know we could” and “I thought I might offend the applicant” and “I never expected people to confess.”

The reason people confess is because the question was asked. However, the questions must be properly phrased and always asked of all applicants who are being considered for hire.

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