Tucked away in a nondescript two-story building on a quiet street in suburban Simi Valley, Calif., an obscure company known as EMA-SPA keeps private files that are the kiss of death for thousands of job hunters.
EMA-SPA says its "incident files" catalog people fired because their bosses concluded they were stealing, using drugs or harassing co-workers while on the job, among other things. The dossiers also name department store customers nabbed by security guards and accused of shoplifting.
The trouble is, many -- and perhaps most -- of the estimated 200,000 people with blemished records on file have never been arrested for these purported wrongdoings. Commonly, they don't even know what EMA-SPA is or that their names are on file.
That hasn't stopped employers from Circuit City Stores to Tiffany & Co. to the airline Reno Air from consulting the files before deciding whether to hire an applicant or keep a new probationary employee.
Accused at 16 of trying to steal a T-shirt? Your prospects of getting a job at one of EMA-SPA's 150 clients may be doomed, or at least clouded, for years.
Welcome to the little-known but flourishing business of pre-employment background checks. Prompted by concerns about everything from workplace violence to bogus workers' compensation claims, employers are digging ever more deeply into applicants' personal histories.
Without background checks, "how do businesses know who they are hiring in an anonymous and mobile world?" asked Leif J. Lauritzen, EMA-SPA's president and chief executive.
Yet the job of answering that question often falls to a spottily regulated realm of corporate security firms, detective agencies, credit bureaus and other companies, many newly formed.
Typically, these companies check computer databases or comb through court, credit and driving records -- and sometimes medical histories, job injury claims and police reports. EMA-SPA, whose complete name is Employers Mutual Association United/Stores Protective Association, goes a step further, using its own private files to scrutinize candidates.
For years, many employers have verified resumes and given applicants drug tests and, to a lesser extent, psychological exams. Genetic tests and even handwriting analysis also have been used.
The rise of background checking, however, signals the harnessing of technology and other investigative tools to exhume details and incidents that applicants once could -- rightly or wrongly -- write off as ancient history.
As such, privacy experts say, it poses a growing threat to fairness, particularly when the checkers rely on consumer credit reports and other frequently inaccurate databases.
Even worse, privacy advocates say, the trend threatens to relegate job hunters who may have had scrapes with the law as NTC teen-agers to an underclass with little chance of decent employment.
"It's so easy when you see something in a background check that doesn't look so wonderful to throw the resume in the wastebasket and look at someone else," said Lewis Maltby, workplace rights director for the American Civil Liberties Union.
But the demands of the competitive business world and the threat of costly litigation involving rogue employees give employers strong financial incentives to step up pre-employment screening. In a survey last April of 500 large companies, the American Management Association found that 42 percent investigate whether candidates have criminal records. Two-thirds said they perform some type of background check, including such traditional practices as calling former employers and schools listed on a resume.
Nor are background checks performed only for big business. Parents interviewing prospective nannies sometimes use investigative firms to ensure they don't end up making a potentially tragic mistake, such as hiring a convicted child molester.
Depending on complexity, the checks typically cost from $20 to $200.
While there is no one law covering workplace privacy rights in general or pre-employment screening in particular, a patchwork of state and federal laws apply: civil rights acts, fair credit statutes and laws intended to prevent discrimination against the disabled and people who have filed workers' compensation claims. As a practical matter, though, the laws often are ignored or artfully manipulated opening up opportunities for abuse.
Take, for example, the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, which requires that applicants be told when they are rejected for jobs because of information uncovered in "investigative consumer reports" or more conventional credit checks.
But experts say violations by employers often go undetected so that many people aren't even aware that their prospects were doomed by a background check.