Taking a Closer Look Screening New Building Employees

Taking a Closer Look

Security has always been a concern in New York City’s co-op and condo buildings. Whether you’re a manager, board member/shareholder, or unit owner in an urban co-op or condo, your building isn’t just your home; it’s a community, and a safe haven for residents and their families. To maintain the safety and security of a residential building and give peace of mind to both board members and non-board residents, it’s vital that the people hired to work inside the building are chosen carefully, and are the best people for the job. Choosing the right people to staff your building is as important as making wise decisions about prospective buyers—it’s all about preserving the community and the investment it represents.

Screening 101

As employees in a residential building, staff members have access to the occupants’ apartments and belongings—including sensitive personal information and their private correspondence. In light of this, it’s incumbent upon managing agents to hire the most reliable personnel for their buildings.

A crucial step in hiring personnel is having a thorough screening process in place to check out every candidate, regardless of the position they’re applying for. This process helps managing agents identify the best people for each position, while raising red flags over any candidates with criminal histories or a dossier of disciplinary actions or chronic terminations.

According to David Goodman of Tudor Realty, a management firm based in Manhattan, the first step in the screening process is to have each candidate fill out a comprehensive application including standard questions such as contact information, date of birth, social security number or green card identification number—and if the applicant is not a U.S. citizen, past experience and tenure at each previous place of employment, reasons for leaving and so forth.

In addition, says Goodman, there must be language on the application form clearly stating that the form will be used to conduct a background check. By signing the application, candidates are giving the managing agent permission to look into their personal information.

Skeletons in the Closet

Of all the information contained in an application and examined during the course of a background check, perhaps the two most important items are the applicant’s criminal history and their past employment record.

"A criminal history search should always be run on an applicant," says John Carranco of Background Information Services Inc. in Boulder, Colorado. "For certain positions—maintenance for example—if the person’s going to be driving vehicles, a motor vehicle criminal history will be a priority. If someone is working on the financial end, we’ll run credit checks. Companies can indicate what type of check they want to do based on the position."

Another choice management must make is how far back into a candidate’s history they want to look. The farther back it goes, the more the background check will cost. Carranco says seven years is the average span of a background check, but employers can have different reasons for requesting longer or shorter checks.

"It depends on the [management] company’s criteria," he says. "And whether they want to disqualify people based on felonies or misdemeanors. They can go three years back, five years back, seven years."

Jack Jackson, president of Clark & Ramson, another screening company based in Somerville, New Jersey, recommends that employers specifically ask for a complete criminal history on an application—not necessarily just anything that happened over a certain period of time.

"A lot of application forms ask for a criminal history over seven years," Jackson says. "But a lot of people try to get on the straight and narrow, so if you want to know if the person has any history, I would recommend you remove the seven-year mention from the application process. Seven years just sort of became the standard, but there isn’t a law that says you can’t ask for more."

Job-Hoppers and Resume-Padders

Another factor that can be cause for concern in the hiring process is an irregular or checkered employment history, says Goodman. If a candidate has a history of changing jobs frequently, this could signal a problem with getting along with co-workers, taking direction, or disciplinary issues. Most managing agents don’t want to invest in training an employee and paying union dues if that new hire does not intend to stick around for long—or may be a consistent problem.

Resumes and job applications are obviously the primary tools a managing agent has for tracking an applicant’s work history, but they can be tricky; a person can, after all, write whatever he or she wants. So some companies choose to investigate applicants’ resumes to verify their contents.

"In cases where there’s a resume involved, we do attempt to obtain as much information as we can to verify the information," Jackson says. "That involves looking at old school records, military forms, and so on."

Lies of omission can make resumes unreliable as well. For that reason, companies sometimes opt for a Social Security number check.

"Let’s say you fill out an application," Carranco says. "You might leave out two states you lived in because you committed assault in those states. If we do a Social Security number trace, we’ll pick up those states and search them."

Knowing everywhere a candidate has lived can be important for other reasons. If a person doesn’t tend to stick with jobs very long, they may move a lot as a result and may decide to leave some stops off their resume or application to make it look more professional. That could indicate that they’re running from something, and cast serious doubts upon their reliability, says Jackson.

When Something Comes Up

But what if a candidate tells the whole truth—and that truth includes their being convicted of a felony, for example? Is that applicant automatically disqualified from the process regardless of their professional experience and ability to do the job? Not necessarily, says Goodman.

“If we are presented with a candidate who otherwise looks perfect on paper but was convicted of a felony or other crime in the past, we do take their age, how long ago the crime was committed and the nature of the crime into account. If the crime was non-violent in nature, they stand a better chance. We do, however, bring it to the attention of the board of the building and make them aware of the situation” adds Goodman.

In some instances, confirming a criminal incident in the past via a background check can actually be beneficial to the applicant, if they’ve been honest about it from the start.

"If the prospective employee lists [prior charges or convictions] on an application, you can ask about them," Carranco says. "So if we do the background check and it doesn’t match, there’s a problem. The company might disqualify a candidate then. But if the candidate tells them [about their criminal history] and it does match up with the check, it gives the candidate credibility."

Do-It-Yourself?

Of course, running checks on several likely candidates and spending time poring over applications costs money—and management companies looking to conserve costs may be tempted to perform background checks themselves rather than use an external investigation agency. Since so much of the information gathered in a background check is public information available on the Internet, couldn’t a web-savvy managing agent scope out a potential employee on their own?

The answer is: not really. Amateur background checks can backfire for a number of reasons—not the least of which is that it can be difficult to confirm the accuracy of any information you glean from a Google search. Most management companies agree that it’s better to use an external agency than risk the possibility of errors, mistaken identity, and possible liability.

“We use outside firms specializing in conducting background checks and drug testing to do a complete background check on each applicant,” says Goodman. “They’re basically private detective firms.”

External investigation firms specialize in gathering personal and criminal histories. They have access to local, statewide and national databases from which they harvest their data, and they comply with laws pertaining to collecting and disseminating personal information. This is important to prevent conflict with employment regulations or labor unions.

"I’ve found that a lot of companies want to cut corners and lower cost, so they try to do it themselves," Jackson says. "But it increases the building’s liability if they terminate someone because of something found in their credit history, and the employee was not completely aware that their background was being checked. Sometimes [managers] even call friends [of the applicant], and it can develop into borderline harassment.”

"We have forms that make the employee aware that a background check will be done,” Jackson continues. “What I’ve found is that a person who doesn’t want to sign the form usually has something to hide. But the company is protected if the employee says, ‘I never gave you permission to check my information.’”

“Can you do it on your own?” Jackson asks, “Yes, but you have to be careful. If you don’t know what to search, it can take time. Professionals have databases and resources to get information from wherever the person may have lived. We have the expertise to go to a courthouse and find exactly what we’re looking for."

So You Have a Staff—Now What?

Once all of the research and verification has been taken care of and the final hires made, it still remains the managing agent’s responsibility to make sure the new staff member is well trained and kept current on rules, regulations, and safety and security protocols.

No matter how experienced an employee is coming onto the job, ongoing training is a necessity these days. Whether it is a refresher seminar, or learning a completely new skill set, it is a good idea to ensure your staff keep their training up to date. Labor unions like SEIU Local 32BJ—the tri-state area's building service union, representing 70,000 cleaners, doormen, porters, maintenance workers, window cleaners, security guards, superintendents, and theater and stadium workers in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut—offer union members an array of training courses to keep their skills current. Most of these courses are paid for by a combination of the employee’s union dues and the employers’ contribution to the union.

According to Matt Nerzig, Local 32BJ’s director of communications, “We offer more than 60 continuing education courses through the Thomas Shortman Training Fund, which is a labor/management partnership between the Realty Advisory Board and SEIU 32BJ.

And in addition to continuing education, says Jackson, the usefulness of background checks isn’t limited to new or prospective employees. There could be instances where you want a current employee investigated. Such an investigation needs to be carried out fairly, however, and not without good reason.

"When existing employees are being looked at, it’s because there’s suspicion of something," Jackson says. If you do feel the need to investigate a current employee, Jackson recommends doing so with all employees in order to avoid potential legal difficulties.

"That way there are no discrimination suits being brought forth," he says. "No unfair treatment or unfair labor disputes that can be brought forward."

Every check is different, but the average check should take about one to three days. Cost will vary depending on the company you use and they type of check you request.

Assembling a top-shelf building staff is a complicated process that involves many variables and more than a little time. With the help of professionals and careful investigation, however, managers, board members, and shareholders and unit owners alike can rest assured that the best people for the job are on the job.

Brian Ormsbee is a freelance writer living in Manhattan.

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