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When things don't add up Featured

10:49am EDT October 23, 2001

Tricia Smith knows her way around the courthouse.

That's where she spends most of her time, checking out prospective employees for a growing list of local clients, including ODW Logistics, Environment Control, Spherion and A-Plus Personnel.

In 1996, after brief stints in security positions for Lazarus and The Limited Inc., Smith launched Secure Check, a full-service, pre-employment screening firm.

"I knew there was a gap in the market, and I knew I could provide a different type of service than was generally available," she says.

While many companies subscribe to online database services that provide background information, such as arrest records, Smith says her company does hands-on research for every applicant.

"We go to the courts and do a thorough background check, going back about 10 years," she says. "A lot of the online database services don't provide the depth of information employers need to make a decision based on whether or not a person has been convicted."

In fact, educating companies as to what they're actually getting when they do a background check has been one of Smith's biggest challenges.

"If a company is using an online service, it needs to know the difference between an arrest record and a conviction record," she explains. "Just because a person has been arrested, it doesn't mean he has been convicted. You should never use an arrest record in a hiring decision. That's a federal law."

Smith also points out other important differences between her company and online services.

"I've tried to stay fairly small in order to give my clients really good personalized service," she says. "My clients can call me at any time to ask questions or ask for my help or opinion, and I can get all the information they need to make their hiring decisions."

Another feature that Smith says sets Secure Check apart from some of its larger competitors is pricing. Because a number of her clients are temporary staffing agencies or distribution centers -- businesses that interview and hire a large number of applicants on a regular basis -- she offers a volume discount on background investigations for those types of clients.

"It has created a niche. Because they have a lot of turnover, perhaps they couldn't have afforded to do background checks before. But they can justify the volume price I give them, and I can afford to do that because they're sending me hundreds of names each month," she notes.

In addition to checking criminal records, Smith says her company also looks at employment and credit history on some applicants.

"Especially if someone will be in a position of trust or will have access to assets, we will check credit history," she explains. "I have worked with several small businesses that have had incidents with trusted employees, and I feel strongly that some of those things can be prevented by doing a very thorough background check."

Smith says small businesses usually are more vulnerable in those types of situations.

"The small business owner tends to treat employees more like a family," she points out. "If you have an office with only 10 or 12 employees, they're usually given a lot of trust and a lot of access to assets -- company secrets and the company checkbook."

An emerging division of the company provides background information on individuals who will be providing child care or elder care in private homes. For those applicants, Smith checks not only criminal records and employment and credit history but also the person's driving record.

"You want to make sure they have a valid driver's license and a good driving history," she says. "And you want to make sure that everything is consistent in the person's background -- just paint an overall picture and look for red flags when things don't match up."

Smith says Secure Check has experienced 100 percent growth in each of the last five years. She has two local employees and works with 10 researchers in Ohio as well as a national network of background providers. At the beginning of this year, she opened a second office in Akron to service clients in the Akron/Cleveland market.

In her "spare time," Smith is establishing herself as an expert witness. In the last year, she has testified at two major trials on behalf of crime victims. In each case, the employer had failed to do a thorough background check before hiring an employee.

If they had, Smith says, they would have found a record of criminal convictions. Because they didn't, they found themselves in court. How to reach: Tricia Smith, president, Secure Check Inc., 444-7455 or www.securecheckinc.com

Editor's Note: This page is presented as a cooperative effort of National City Bank and SBN Magazine; however all material prepared for this page was independently reported and edited by SBN and was not subject to prior review or approval by National City Bank representatives.