Ultra Vigilant? Or Ultra Creepy?

Whether it’s due to concerns about terrorism, theft, or workplace violence, more and more jobs are requiring a background check these days. While it may not be so surprising that certain jobs, such as elementary school teacher, bus driver, or bank teller, require background checks, especially when checks may even be required by law, it may surprise you that some companies now require checks for all employees, from CEO on down. And the extent of the checks may also surprise you, as a new company, Verified Person, now offers employers the ability to conduct new checks every other week. One company using the service claims they’re just being “ultra vigilant,” but some might find the pervasiveness of the checks just as creepy as the stalkers and criminals their employers are hoping to ferret out.

In a recent Business Week article, Background Checks That Never End, the magazine reports that one company is hoping to distinguish itself from others in the growing field of background checks for employers by providing perpetual checks. Every two weeks, those who have hired the screening service Verified Person can expect an updated background check on each of their employees, at a cost of $1 – 2 per employee. One of Verified Person’s founders has a background that doesn’t require much checking — John Sculley was formerly the chairman of Apple Computer, and the ex-CEO of PepsiCo. Trying to find a way to be more innovative than their competitors, Sculley and his co-founder, Tal Moise, a former chief information officer at IU Health in Indianapolis, marketed Verified Person as the first company offering the perpetual screens.

At first blush, Verified Person’s approach might make a lot of sense. Just because employees can pass one background screen doesn’t necessarily mean their history will be clean forever, and employers may be very interested in slip-ups that occur after employees are hired. One company who engaged Verified Person’s services, Fresh Direct, an grocery delivery company, did so after one of its drivers pled guilty to stalking and harassing female customers. Even though the driver had previous misdemeanor and felony convictions on his record, that hadn’t turned up in the investigation conducted by Fresh Direct’s prior screening firm.

You can question whether Fresh Direct’s problem was just a faulty investigation to begin with, or actually caused by the failure to have a continuous screening process, but it’s hard to argue with companies like Fresh Direct who want to do everything in their power to keep their customers from experiencing stalking or harassment. In the words of their spokesperson, Jim Moore, “We want to be seen as being ultra-vigilant.” Anyone from CEO Dean Furbush to the company’s drivers and food packagers is subject to the search.

But where does it end? There’s no requirement that companies limit their background checks to what is job-related, so even if you sit behind a desk instead of behind the wheel, your employer could learn about your driving record, such as that DUI you earned after one too many drinks. And even if you have no access to your employer’s checkbook, your employer could learn about your bounced checks or bankruptcy filing. That’s assuming the information is accurate, but what if it’s not? With so much information available online and immediately accessible, will companies slow down and take the time to get it right, and resolve any discrepancies in the data?

These perpetual background checks are only one way that employers can keep close tabs on their employees, according to a recent Chicago Tribune article: ID Chips Get Under Privacy Experts Skin. Another company, also hoping to distinguish itself through innovation, has some employees wear radio transmitting chips, transplanted under the skin, which can be scanned to open and close doors to secure areas. “We wanted a way to say, ‘Hey, we are a little different in the way we take our security,'” explained Sean Darks, chief executive of CityWatcher.com in Cincinnati, who along with two of his employees has an implanted chip.

While everybody knows that microchipping your pets is a good idea, is it really such a good idea for employees? Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation doesn’t think so: “This may be appropriate for cattle, pets or packages, but for humans it is a very different issue.” Here’s what I had to say about it when the reporter, Stephen Franklin, called me: “This is incredible. It raises something out of `1984.’ It is a very invasive way of keeping tabs on your workers.” (See Chicago Tribune article.) For those of you who thought drug testing, with monitored urination and required blood draws, was invasive, welcome to a world where your employer can ask that you be implanted with a microchip.

Right now, the practice seems to be limited to CityWatcher and the company that makes the chips, VeriChip (who coincidentally is represented on a panel taking place today in Cambridge, Massachusetts, called Tagging Living Things.) But with the attention the practice is attracting, you can be sure there will be more employers who think this is a good idea, just like the bandwagon started when one company, Weyco, publicly announced that it would subject its workers to nicotine tests and fire anyone caught smoking, even off-the-clock. (See blog entry of February 3, 2005, and a recent Wall Street Journal Online article, highlighting Scott’s Miracle-Gro’s similar new policy.)

Similar concerns abound about GPS tracking, where employers require their employees to carry GPS devices which indicate their location at all times. It’s already standard practice with transportation employers, such as UPS, which use the technology to track their drivers’ locations in the field, so that they can pinpoint drivers close to a customer’s location. (See Monster article.) It may make things more efficient, but what about a situation where an employee stops during lunch hour to go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or to a bone cancer specialist — concerns raised by privacy expert Jordana Beebe of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

It’s becoming rather creepy just how much your employer can know about you and track your every move. Don’t believe that commercial about Las Vegas: What happens here, stays here. If you thought that weekend in Vegas, or anywhere else for that matter, was not your employer’s business, just wait until two weeks later when whatever happened there shows up on your background check.

More Information:

Workplace Fairness:
Know the Law: Privacy
Short-Changed: Privacy

National Workrights Institute

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse

Electronic Frontier Foundation

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.