Ancient Greek Philosophy insisted on the knowledge of self, reiterating “Know thyself”, to all mankind! Is it possible for a company to know itself? More specifically, can a company know enough about its workforce to ensure that all workers will adhere to the company’s values and standards of performance? Given their responsibility to ensure a safe work environment, employers today are taxed with ensuring the appropriate actions of all of its workers, permanent employees and temporary workers alike. It seems like a tall order, to say the least!
The prison sentence of 39 years for David Kwiatkowski, the traveling medical technician may have come too late for at least 46 people whom he callously infected with his own viral Hepatitis C disease during his assignments with 18 hospitals in 7 states since 2002. His actions put a host of others who came in contact with these people at risk of contamination too – turning it into a minor epidemic. Though he was caught red-handed and fired at least 4 times, he was able to re-surface elsewhere to get another temporary assignment with another hospital; a possibility that strikes a chill into most recruiters’ hearts.
Temporary work is rapidly growing and many organizations today employ a sizeable chunk of temporary workers. How can employers ensure a safe and risk free environment for their workers as well as customers, even as they invite new and unknown entities onboard to expand their teams or replace old workers? The question that all employers grapple with is whether they are doing a good job of screening their workforce. Do they screen them only at the time of hire or should they also screen their current employees on an ongoing basis? Should they screen their professional backgrounds alone or their educational attainments and possible criminal activity or substance abuse too?
In the Kwiatkowski case, the question that must be on everyone’s mind is: how can a healthcare worker be caught stealing and using drugs, falsifying time cards, forging signatures of hospital personnel, accumulating numerous OUI arrests, be fired four times, yet continue to find employment in the healthcare field? The sentencing judge attributed it to “Kwiatkowski’s employers handled his behavior as personnel matters instead of crimes.”
A hospital in Maryland suspected him of stealing drugs, but when a staffing agency later contacted the hospital about Kwiatkowski, a manager gave him a satisfactory review, writing: “David is very professional and worked very hard.” An investigation conducted by the Maryland Department of Public health reported problems in the way that staffing agencies screen applicants and a culture at hospitals that makes staff wary of reporting bad employees. Kwiatkowski often quit the jobs before investigations were completed, and the hospitals and staffing agencies often didn’t pass on information to his potential new employers. Government regulators relied on applicants to self-report criminal history. A national registry meant to flag problem workers did not list all of Kwiatkowski’s transgressions. A staffing company terminated Kwiatkowski’s contract with a leading Pennsylvania healthcare facility after he was caught stealing drugs and tested positive for narcotics. However, the agency continued to place Kwiatkowski in jobs in Maryland. Analysts with the Maryland Board of Physicians only contact past employers that applicants list. The board doesn’t do background checks, so it failed to catch any criminal history. This sad and sordid tale underscores the importance of companies rigorously conducting background checks. All of the healthcare institutions that “passed him along” face massive litigation while government agencies are being investigated and can expect significant overhauls of its screening and management practices.
If you are in the habit of engaging workers on a seasonal basis, re-engaging these temporary workers each year, what level of screening should be done each year? Should the same level of rigor be applied for reassigned workers as for “first timers”? Criminal activities, substance abuse, or other ‘red flags’ need not necessarily be in a person’s distant past. They could occur at any time of their lives. So, companies cannot afford to ignore the possibility that there is a change in the worker’s circumstances or mindset – and it could pose a threat to the safety of the workplace. To a certain extent, the continuing evaluation requirements also depend on the industry in which the person is working. Checks like drug and health screening, motor vehicle records checks and sanctions checks are all useful to investigate current employees’ backgrounds. For seasonal and intermittent work, most savvy companies run a background check annually and assure themselves of some peace of mind.
A company is not protected against possible deviant behavior from a worker simply by running recurring background checks. A diligent attitude is needed, taking the trouble to be informed of the worker’s activities and taking actions to mitigate. If the new task involves working with someone vulnerable like children, senior citizens or patients as with David Kwiatkowski, continued monitoring will have to be conducted.
After all, once the deed is done, no amount of recrimination or punishment is going to reverse the clock on its effects. Prevention is the only way to mitigate risk and ensure workplace safety.
How should a company address issues that surface during an assignment? Recent tragic events where a worker committed a mass shooting at a plant or office have led to a rise in charges of negligent retention. This is a type of employment-related claim in which an employer failed to discharge a worker who management knew, or should have known, had a propensity toward violence, sexual harassment, or dishonesty. The basis of these suits is that on prior occasions, the worker had issued threats, brought a weapon to the company’s premises, or demonstrated other actions that could affect the safety of the workplace. When the worker is an agency contractor, the supplier should immediately be notified of these actions and be required to take effective corrective actions, including termination of the worker on assignment. When dealing with an independent contractor or SOW-based project team, each contract should specify the company’s right to terminate the contract at any time and should further specify “cause’” for immediate termination without financial penalty.
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