David C. Sawyer

While procedures and protocols of family-owned businesses are much the same as any other enterprise, there is sometimes a disconnect when it comes to hiring practices and associated background screening.

Not to paint a broad stroke, but some family-owned businesses may tend to have a more casual hiring system based on discussions within the family unit. Strong feelings among and between family members in leadership positions may lead to adding someone to the employee roster whose background may not be exactly sterling. While no business can afford to hire someone whose unwholesome past actions might be discovered or re-emerge, it could have an even greater impact on a family business that has worked hard to maintain its reputation not only as a matter of pride, but also because the family name is on the door.

I recently had a conversation with the owner of the cleaning service we use in our offices. She inquired about background checks as she is expanding her business and, for the first time,was considering hiring someone she doesn’t already know. Since these employees will be sent into people’s homes and offices, her obligation to clients is to make sure her employees are trustworthy and don’t have a record of criminal activity in their past.

I explained that once she starts the background screening process, she should not differentiate between people she feels she knows well and someone she just met. One reason may be obvious; screening one applicant and not screening the next could lead to claims of discrimination.

Another reason – not as apparent – is that we want to believe we truly know someone who has been in our lives for years.

To illustrate the point, let me share that I started my background screening/drug testing business much the same way as the aforementioned cleaning company did. At first, we hired people we knew. In my case, it was primarily family. We’ve since grown enough to the point where many of our more recent hires are not family members; that said, for the most part, I’ve continued the practice of hiring people I’ve known prior to my becoming their employer.

Despite having knowledge of their character and work ethic, we, without exception, perform background checks for each new hire in exactly the same way. That includes my son and my wife. This may seem a bit overboard to some, but we hold everyone to the same standard when evaluating the results of a background screening and making a hiring decision. I owe that to my clients, who trust us with the sensitive information we explore while doing background checks.

You may think you know someone well, but until the research is completed and the facts presented, you can’t be 100 percent certain you have all-inclusive knowledge of someone’s past. Most often there will be no surprises, but if you do a thorough background check on everyone you hire, family or not, I can almost guarantee you will be surprised at some point by someone you thought you knew very well. Believe it or not, we even see cases where the subject of the background check is surprised by what we find. This usually involves the disposition of the case. A prospective employee would certainly remember they were in hot water at one time but might honestly think their attorney made it “go away” and no record of the infraction exists.

Lawyers don’t always do a good job of making sure their client knows what transpired behind the scenes in a criminal court case. And the client is often so relieved to hear they won’t be doing any jail time or paying a hefty fine that they don’t ask any questions. Making it “go away” may translate into entering a guilty plea in exchange for leniency. That conviction, however, is still there when it comes to a criminal background check report. Court records are public and arrests that were reported in a newspaper or other media could surface with a simple Google search. Family or not, you probably don’t want your clients thinking you’ve betrayed their trust should they discover one of your key employees is a thief or has a bad temper … or worse.

Working to protect the reputation of a family business can be challenging; the importance of performing a thorough background check on everyone in consideration for employment cannot be overstated. So, when your favorite nephew comes knocking on the door for a job because he just got fired for the second time this year, it would be wise to keep your sympathetic eyes at bay and hold him to the same scrutiny you would any other potential employee. In the long run it will serve all involved for the better.

David C. Sawyer is president of Safer Places Inc., a Middleboro, Massachusetts-based firm that provides employee screening, tenant screening and security consultation. This article first appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Massachusetts Family Business, the magazine of the Family Business Association of Massachusetts.

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