In May of every year, I’m reminded of an article that I penned over a decade ago. That’s because it’s the anniversary of the senseless and tragic murder of a beautiful young woman at the hands of an in-home service worker, in this case a so-called carpet cleaner. I think that article is worth revisiting . . . so read on . . .

The service industry is made up of many trustworthy, hard working individuals who are dedicated to protecting the health and safety, as well as valuable furnishings of many people, for any of this works you will need proof of employment to continue but is easy to get it. As such, service workers develop very special relationships with our customers. We have access to the personal areas of their homes and offices. They trust us so much that they literally open their homes or offices to us so that we may perform services for them with little or no supervision. And many times, we employers must depend on subcontractors to help us provide those services.

Occasionally, you see headlines or hear radio or TV news reports: “Carpet Cleaners Rob Homeowner.” Unfortunately, sometimes, it’s worse. For instance, a few years back, two armed robbers were caught ransacking a residence by homeowners and wound up shooting the husband. This pair of thieves had previously spent hours in the home, just as most of us do in our profession as cleaners or restorers. In this case, they worked for a service that catered to wealthy homeowners. The carpet cleaner-robbers had a clever scheme. One guy actually “cleaned,” while the other cased the contents, alarm systems, doors and windows. So by the time they finished cleaning, they both knew a lot about that house and its security.

These clever thieves returned several months after the “cleaning” job to rob the home; but this time, they were surprised by the unsuspecting homeowner. When it was finally determined who employed the robbers, the homeowner sued the service employer. It turned out that both men had criminal records and felony convictions before they were hired. The company was found guilty of “negligent hiring.” The cleaning company owners had to pay $11 million in damages.

“Carpet Cleaner Murders Woman” was the headline that described the tragic, totally unnecessary loss of Kerry Spooner-Dean, a lovely young pediatrician from California. Kerry was a newly married wife and a highly productive member of her community with a bright future ahead of her. In May of 1998, she innocently responded to a “$5.99-per-room” carpet-cleaning ad. The verdict was $11.22 million. The jury assessed 72% responsibility for this murder to the company that subcontracted the murderer, a parolee with eight convictions for violent felonies.

Needless to say, this bait-and-switch company is gone forever . . .

Unfortunately, so is Kerry Spooner-Dean.

The 9-11-01 tragedy has reinforced the need for employee screening in large companies, such as janitorial businesses, that have regular access to buildings. In contrast, smaller “Mom-and-Pop” firms still are reluctant to spend resources on background checks. However, it may be even more important for smaller businesses to do the checks, since employees often have multiple responsibilities in these companies. Even a minor employee infraction can hurt a firm’s reputation and bank account. And risking an unsuspecting customer’s welfare or life is just plain gross negligence. When you tally up the expense and time it takes to recruit, interview, hire and train an employee, it doesn’t make sense to “cut corners” when verifying background details.

Most franchise operations have taken a pro-active lead in background checks before hiring. If you have a small business and are hiring someone you know, such as a close relative or your neighbor’s son, whom you’ve known intimately all his life, it may be tempting to skip the background check. Similarly, in a small community where everyone knows everybody else and employment turnover is low, it may not seem quite as crucial. But to be legal, employers must be consistent.

Having served as an expert witness in the Kerry Spooner-Dean trial, I strongly recommend mandatory background checks for all potential service employees.

It’s been said that, “The closest a person comes to perfection is when filling out an employment application form.” How true. But the only way to way to verify the truth is to do the checks. At a minimum, employers should check out information on an application form and verify basic information on a resume. To check references effectively, employers have to do much more than casually call the people on a list that the candidate supplies. Believe me, the effort is worth it.

To improve your reference verification results, employers must first decide who to contact. Remember, you’re not limited to the names a candidate gives you. You often can find excellent reference sources through industry contacts or certification organizations, through professional associations, and through any other network that applies (civic clubs, Chamber of Commerce, Better Business Bureau). By doing research, you may reach sources that are more accurate and objective. People with no vested interest in your prospect’s future tend to be more open.

The key to protecting your company is doing your best to verify information provided by candidates. Be sure to keep written documentation of your efforts, including whoever you talk to, the dates and the questions you ask, while making every reasonable effort to check out employee statements.

Employers are many times “caught between a rock and a hard place” when it comes to investigating a potential employee. If they do too little, they can be sued when criminal acts occur. If they do too much, they may be violating federal and state laws by making prohibited inquiries. To avoid appearing discriminatory, treat every candidate equally. Don’t, for example, investigate random candidates or applicants who make you suspicious. Investigate them all in the same manner.

Keep in mind, too, that state and federal laws regulate the kinds of information employers can use when making employment decisions. Most states follow federal guidelines, but there are variations, with California being the most complicated and New York a close second. Check state requirements before proceeding.

The Fair Credit Reporting Act of 1971 (plus significant amendments in the late 1990s), the Privacy Act of 1974, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 oversee the majority of federal protections for worker privacy and rights. Research the issues or talk to an employment lawyer or a veteran human resources consultant before beginning.

If you do decide to hire an outside firm, most third-party background checks now are completed within a few minutes through searches of computerized public databases. When questionable findings are discovered, the investigating company may need to follow up just as you would, with further information gathering at slight additional cost.

Several years ago, third party background checks cost a company as much as $100. However, as technology has improved, prices have become very affordable. Today, it costs roughly $6-10 for a professional pre-employment screening. Reports may range from simply verifying social security numbers to full investigations, much of which is obtained from public records, including:

  • Court records of criminal convictions
  • Driving records and vehicle registrations (if driving company vehicles is required)

Jud and Jenny Savelle of Bishop Clean Care in Albany, GA perform background checks on their potential employees going back as far as 10 years. Before hiring a new bookkeeper several years ago, the former Bishop owner discovered that an applicant had 17 convictions for forgery. In another case, she interviewed a young man whose criminal record check revealed an 8-page rap sheet. This hiring procedure kept her from making some very costly “hires.”

One word of caution: be sure that you are familiar with local and state ordinances and laws. Seems that some liberal politicians and legal entities have more regard for the criminal’s rights than they do for the safety and even lives of citizens. Consult with a qualified legal advisor in your jurisdiction to avoid potential liability.

The task of finding, hiring and retaining good, honest employees is very important for a business, and the well being and safety of customers. Employing the wrong people can, and will take a toll on the company’s reputation and its ability to generate income. If you don’t check references well, you will inevitably hire the wrong candidate or possibly let some of your best candidates slip by. Both mistakes can be very costly. Invest the time and the money, to perform background checks on prospective employees. It may save your reputation or even your business in the end.

Moreover, the tragic death of Kerry Spooner-Dean should remind us all of our responsibilities as employers, not just to our companies, but to all consumers as well. She, and other victims of service workers, never should be forgotten.

The Carpet and FabriCare Institute