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Someone's checking up on you!
Aparna Krishnakumar in Mumbai
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June 01, 2005

V Narayan (name changed), 30, returned from the United States and applied for a job at a Fortune 500 IT company in India. With impeccable credentials, he almost landed a project leader's post.

But he had not told his future employer that he had been arrested for child molestation in the US. Narayan had assumed that the Indian company would never find this out.

But it did. It had entrusted the task of screening him to Mumbai-based background screening company Quest Research.

Narayan is not in solitary company. Nearly every candidate for an IT job here is thoroughly scrutinised before he or she is put on the rolls.

The next time you apply for a job at an IT company in India, you can be sure that your employer will check a host of issues.

Did you really get that first class for your bachelor's degree? Did you write in your application that you had a year's work experience when you actually had interned for three months at some company?

Confirms Yogesh Bhura, managing director, Quest Research: "Indian companies have begun to recognise the need for a pre-employment check to counter attrition and the theft of data."

Agrees Lulu Khandeshi, assistant vice president, human resources and training, at Tracmail, the Mumbai-based business process outsourcing company: "The information and work that we handle is of a very sensitive nature and it is imperative for a BPO like ours to have pre-employment checks in place."

What is checked, who checks you out

  • Your general education background. Companies call up the university where you studied for your bachelor's or master's degree and check the records.
  • Your professional degree or certificates. Ditto, but this relates to your MBA degree or any certificates you may have obtained. The first point that's checked is whether your university is a recognised one.
  • Employment history. Companies call up all the companies you had worked for. Companies don't call the people you have given as references because these may be your friends. Instead, they call the HR department or others.
  • Criminal check. Companies check with the local police station and so on.
  • Address. Companies check whether you are staying at the address you mentioned in your application. They talk to your neighbours and so on.
  • Quest Research. Headquartered in Hong Kong, the company is run from Mumbai and Bangalore
  • Detective Network. The Delhi-based company provides investigative services to companies and individuals, has local offices spread across the country and tie-ups with international organisations
  • TACT India. This Delhi-based company has been providing credit verification and scree-ning services in the Indian sub-continent since 2001.

Nor is pre-employment screening confined to BPO companies. Every IT company worth its salt, including Tata Consultancy Services [Get Quote], Patni Computer Systems [Get Quote] and Electronic Data Systems, does it too (all candidates are aware when they receive their offer letter that they will be subjected to a background check).

R K Raghavan, advisor, security, at TCS, explains that having such verification processes in place gives clients comfort. Security professionals say that candidates for employment often submit fake degrees and incorrect work experience details.

Though no figures are available on just how big the pre-employment screening business is, a measure of this is available from the fact that companies that conduct such screening report that the business is flourishing.

Quest's Bhura recalls that when he began offering these services in 2001, pre-employment checks were completely alien to Indian companies.

Today, however, Bhura puts the number for Quest at between 10,000- 15,000 verifications a year. Akhilesh Kapoor, director, operations at TACT India, says that the organised segment of this industry has done at least 50,000 verifications every year.

Manish Wadhawan, director, security, at the Delhi-based Detective Network puts his company's figure at 15,000 a year. All three report that the top 10 IT and information technology enabled services companies and the smaller IT companies have availed of their services.

Quest, which was recently acquired by the US based First Advantage Corporation, started with just five employees here but now has over 400 and has expanded to other metros.

Says John Long, chief executive officer and president of the US-based First Advantage Corporation: "Quest has the potential to earn several $100 million in sales."

According to Long, the pre employment check industry in the US is estimated to be worth around $5 billion. Kapoor of TACT India too confirms that the business has grown rapidly.

Indeed, the large IT companies now spend anywhere between Rs 3,000 and Rs 6,000 per candidate, while mid size companies shell out between Rs 1,000 and Rs 2,000 per candidate -- a small price to pay because the risk associated with employing a bad candidate is far higher than the money spent on preliminary checks.

Says Milind Jadhav, senior vice president, human resources, at Patni: "Pre employment checks have helped us maintain a clean employee database and assured our clients of our global practices in human resources."

Tracmail's Khandeshi says that screening has helped the company steer clear of psychologically depressed candidates who may have behavioural problems in the future.

If employee verification has caught on in India, it's also because after the 9/11 attacks in the US, the country began laying down stricter rules for Indian employees who wished to work onshore.

This in turn required companies here to submit the findings of employee verification checks. Secondly, outsourcing has resulted in clients demanding stringent procedures in terms of work and people.

Says Jay Sitaram, vice president and country manager, Lionbridge India, the IT and testing services company: "All new employees have to undergo comprehensive background checks and drug testing. This ensures that we can be confident about fulfilling the security and confidentiality requirements of our clients and assure  ourselves of quality."

The company adopts a two-pronged approach to pre-employment checks: it checks references with previous employers and whether education certificates are genuine and also employs private detectives for background checks.

Some IT companies like TCS and Tracmail usually carry out some checks themselves and outsource some part of the work to screening companies.

On the other hand, others like Patni and EDS routinely outsource employee checks to professional companies. Argues Soma Jeevan, head, human resources, at EDS: "Pre-employee verifications by professional companies are better as there is no element of bias and also spares the company the hassles of dealing with many agencies."

Screening companies like Detective Network and Trace Verification have to be well networked with universities, schools, police stations and sometimes international agencies as well.

Their investigations in India can take anywhere between 4 and 15 days per candidate. That's because information on individuals is not available at one place in India, unlike in the US where the social security number can provide leads on a person.

Security companies complain of the difficulties in conducting investigations in India. Proper documentation is not available.

Raghu Raman, chief executive officer, Mahindra Special Services Group, the data security solutions company, points out that seven separate documents, ranging from the passport and driving licence to the ration card, identify an individual in India. Except for the passport, every document can be easily bought.

Still, not everyone believes that pre-employment checks work. In April 2005, former employees of a well known IT company were accused of stealing money from US consumers' bank accounts -- and the company does resort to pre-employment checks.

Notes Raman: "Pre-employment screening supposes that the majority of all crimes will be committed by repeat offenders. Statistics tell us otherwise. If you were to examine white collar crimes, you will find that a majority of them is committed by people for the first time."

He points out that studies in Fortune 500 companies have shown that a good workplace has fewer instances of wrong doing and suggests that Indian company managements would do better to look at the work environment.

Secondly, companies may hire security companies for pre-employment screening but they rarely publicise employee sackings.

Hanky panky is often swept under the carpet and the people involved are quietly asked to resign. According to HR heads at companies, this has the potential to create trouble in future, if not in your office, in someone else's.

But IT company job seekers have some consolation -- they won't have to undergo screening every time they change jobs. The National Association for Software and Services Companies (Nasscom) has started a voluntary skills register.

Explains Sunil Mehta, vice president at Nasscom: "Employees who wish to register with us can do so and we will release their data to employers who wish to do a background check."

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