Hiring a new employee can be tricky business. One West Coast shop owner found that out recently when within two days he suddenly found himself down three technicians. Before he could even get a 'help wanted' ad place, a man came in looking for work. 

You can guess at least some of what followed. The guy seemed good on paper - and best of all, he could start right away.

"So I hired him that day," the shop owner said. "No drug test, no background check, no calls to references. I'd always done all that stuff in the past, but I needed someone right away, so I didn't take the time."

Within five days, the new hire was gone, but not before he'd done some poor quality repairs, backed his own car into a customer car in the parking lot, physically threatened another employee, and claimed he'd hurt his back on the job.

The shop owner's story is important because he made mistakes in the hiring process that nearly every business owner has made from time to time.

"It was all so avoidable," he said. "If I'd called one or two of his references, I could have found out that none of them were happy with him by the end. If I'd checked his driving record or police record I would have found out things that would've kept me from hiring him. I don't even want to know what I would've found if I'd drug tested him."

Business attorneys and veteran shop owners say that while taking the following steps won't guarantee a perfect hire every time, it can minimize your chances for a bad hire and the very real costs that can have for your business.

One important note: Employment law varies by state. So always consult with an attorney on all actual legal matters.

Prepare good descriptions

Hiring decisions should be based on how well an applicant's skills and abilities meet the skills and abilities required for the job. That's why having a job description prepared before you start to hire can help avoid problems. A good job description will describe the duties and responsibilities in specific terms so that both you and job applicants understand the 'what and how' of the position.

Remember that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the job. A complete and accurate job description will describe these essential functions - the duties that are fundamental to the job. But in order to use a job description as a defense to an ADA claim, the job description has to exist before interviewing applicants or advertising for a position.

California employment law attorney Cory King adds that employers can help protect themselves against ADA claims by making sure job descriptions include such "intangible job functions" as the abilities to: appear for work on time, follow directions from supervisors, interact successfully with co-workers, understand and follow posted work rules and procedures, and accept constructive criticism.

Use a good application

If you're using a standard job application form from an office supply store, it may not be complying with current law and it certainly won't be getting you the helpful information you'd like about an applicant that is specific to the recycling industry. It would probably be worth your time to create an application form for your company - or review your form if it's been a while since it was updated.

Remember that your form can't ask about marital status, age or date of birth, citizenship, religion, national origin, military record, workers' compensation claim history, height or weight, disabilities or number of dependents.

It should, however, include an authorization to verify education and experience information; a statement of company policy to discharge or disqualify employees who falsify application information; and a statement that an offer of employment can be rescinded based on the results of physical exams, drug tests or other types of pre-employment tests.

Don't accept resumes in lieu of an application. Application forms are considered legal documents but resumes are not.

Interview carefully

Interviewing is often the most important step in the hiring process - but the one that many shops invest very little time in. Here are some tips for doing it right:

  • Standardize your interview questions so that each applicant is asked the same set of questions.
  • Keep understandable notes about the interview. Your notes should be only comments about the applicants' qualifications, strengths and weaknesses - no comments that are discriminatory or could be viewed as discriminatory.
  • Avoid "small talk" that can often lead to improper personal information being disclosed by the applicant.
  • Ask applicants to explain why they left (or are leaving) their last job(s).

Check those references

For many shop owners, the fear of lawsuits keeps them from telling other employers much when they are called about a former employee. Yet these same recyclers are anxious to have as much information as possible about potential employees when it's their turn to hire.

There are two main types of lawsuits that are filed against businesses that give out information about former employees. The first type is defamation - a claim that you gave out information that is false or derogatory, resulting in damage to the former employee's reputation.

State laws vary in how they protect employers from claims of defamation, but in general:

  • Always tell the truth.The truth is generally a complete defense to any claim of defamation. Make sure you have the documentation to back up what you say. Don't exaggerate, and don't draw conclusions from an employee's behavior: If someone was often late for work, say they were repeatedly late for work; don't say you think they have a drug problem because they were often late for work.
  • Only give out information to someone with a business need to know - such as another business that is considering hiring your former employee. You are not protected from defamation claims if you bad-mouth a former employee at a party or industry event. Make sure you know who you're talking to. Ask for a request in writing, or call them back to confirm they are who they say they are.
  • Only give out information that is job-related. Ask about the job the former employee is applying for and only comment on his or her ability to perform those types of duties. Do not give out information that violates employment rights; information that you can't ask about in a job interview (such as race, age and marital status) should not be discussed during an employment reference check.

The second type of lawsuit that is filed against businesses that give out information about former employees is an invasion of privacy lawsuit. This can occur if you give out information that the former employee had an expectation would be private.

Again, stick with job-related information during employment reference checks to protect yourself against this type of lawsuit. Another way to protect yourself is to remove the employee's expectations about what will be private. Do this by giving employees a written policy about what types of information will be given out during employment reference checks.

Use good screening tools

After you've reviewed applications, conducted interviews and checked references, you're probably set to offer someone the job. At that point however, make it clear that it is a conditional job offer, subject to the results of medical or background checks required of all applicants. Once you have made the conditional job offer, you may require the applicant to undergo drug screening or a physical exam as appropriate.

If driving company vehicles is a required part of the job, ask your business insurance agent to research the new hire's driving record. Some shops also require the applicant to authorize a criminal background check as well. Remember that at no time may you ask an applicant about his or her arrest record; you may, however, ask if he or she has been convicted of a felony, and if so, to provide some explanation of the circumstances.

John Yoswick is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon, who has been writing about the automotive industry since 1988.

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