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Background Blunders

While working at a FedEx/Kinko's store in Fairfield, Conn., Paul Sykes allegedly handed a business card to a customer to promote his freelance PC-repair business. Then, according to a civil suit filed against FedEx in December 2005, Sykes entered the customer's house on Sept. 27, 2005, ostensibly on a computer-repair call, and sexually assaulted the customer's 8-year-old son. Sykes was arrested and pled not guilty to felony assault charges, and at this writing was being held at the Bridgeport Correctional Facility.

As if the scenario weren't dreadful enough, Sykes reportedly had been convicted of several felony sex crimes before FedEx hired him. The boy's family says FedEx should have discovered this in its employee-screening process, which the company says included a background check.

"Employers always have had a duty not to bring someone into the workplace who will cause harm," says John LeCrone, a partner with Davis Wright Tremaine. "Conducting a background check won't raise the duty bar--to the contrary, it's a step toward satisfying the duty you have in the first place. The trick is to do your due diligence carefully and find a reputable vendor."

Screening Mistakes

Given such a possibility, companies that rely on background checks without considering their limitations and making reasonable efforts to validate their processes might be leaving themselves exposed to civil liabilities.

"It is wise to conduct background checks, but one has to recognize the inherent shortcomings," Shyer says. "There is no such thing as a perfect background check, and probably there never will be."


Michael T. Burr

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