IT contractors' guide to pre-employment screening

IT contractors might be rubbing their hands together at the sight of bigger tech budgets at banks and financial firms, but the pre-employment screening that such clients insist upon can be a real pain point, writes Simon Bichara of HiredByMe.

Although we are a ‘non-traditional’ screening firm -- we screen contractors just once prior to client selection allowing their details to be re-used for future gigs -- we know that the checking process can be frustrating. And that’s the case for all parties involved in the process in 2015, but it’s contractors I’ll focus on in this exclusive guide for ContractorUK.

IT contractor screening – where we are now

Over the last few years the pre-screening landscape has got more and more rigorous. While a few years ago rules could be ‘flexed’ to get a contractor on site more quickly, these days it’s far more usual to see the traditional screening process being adhered to -- right to the letter. 

Let’s take an example. In 2011 an organisation in London’s financial sector needed to deploy an IT contractor quickly onto a project, but was running behind schedule. The organisation was able to allow the contractor to start on-site as soon as the process of checking had been initiated. That’s even though the contractor was ‘on the bench,’ between roles at the time. Still, pressure a client manager applied internally was sufficient to flex the organisation’s policy, which normally required all checks to be completed well in advance of the contractor’s start date.

These days, however, we’re seeing such flexibility systematically withdrawn. For example, one financial services giant has recently moved responsibility for pre-employment screening away from HR and into its Risk function. The move is specifically designed to take the ‘risk’ part of a decision on any vetting compromises away from those staff who may be tempted to bend the rules in favour of speed. The result of all this is that the screening hurdles are getting higher, more thorough and take longer to jump.

The fallout from rules no longer being flexed

While the intention of the tougher standards is undoubtedly a good thing from a security and professional standpoint, we have also witnessed some counter-intuitive, unintended consequences which are impacting the professional end of the temporary labour market.

In some organisations for instance, the screening pain has become so intolerable that they have increased their use of management consultancies instead of directly hiring contractors! This is because policy often allows persons provided through a consulting contract NOT to have to evidence a screening at the start of the engagement. So this lets consulting firms provide personnel immediately – and so they are given preference despite the large cost penalty involved.   

Almost regardless of the type of screening firm you go through, contractors would be wise to expect more and more rigour in 2015. Banks and other financial services firms are under increased regulatory scrutiny, which means there is little inclination to reduce the controls which are applied.

Where IT contractors can (understandably) get it wrong

As well as the perception from some veteran IT contractors that they don’t need to pay attention to the pre-employment or pre-contract screening process, we often come up against the impression from contractors that the client ‘doesn’t have the right’ to demand sensitive information, such as access to your bank statements, or supporting evidence for medical conditions.

This concern from contractors is completely understandable. You may have an incredibly strong reputation, and have worked for many other companies before without issue, so it can be challenging to see why certain questions suddenly become relevant. But essentially, the screening company is just following the client standard – and the client is concerned to ensure that there isn’t the possibility of misrepresentation. This can particularly be a problem with gap periods between contracts – the client, of course, wants to ensure you were where you say you were, doing what you say you were doing! But given the variety of activities people can do between contracts, it can often require some quite intrusive questioning to verify this.

Of course this can be handled with more or less sensitivity. Believe it or not, we know of screening companies that have required a copy of a death certificate when checking a gap in employment which related to a recent bereavement. And this can be doubly distressing when these gaps need to be checked repeatedly for every new contract, as is the case with traditional screening companies.

When pre-screeners get it wrong (or appear to)

Another part of the pre-screening landscape that can unsettle contractors is the big variance in quality and service among the current providers in the marketplace. This is often due to the fragmentation of models in operation today (who is responsible versus who is paying), and the perception that screening is a necessary evil. However, increasingly, the recruitment profession is recognising the importance of contractor satisfaction in the whole on-boarding experience. After all - the thinking goes - these are valued people with specialist skills, future colleagues, potential clients and brand advocates.

But what should an IT contractor do if their pre-screener is one of the lower quality firms, or just isn’t up to scratch? In general, we’d recommend that contractors feedback to their client’s RPO (Recruitment Process Outsourcer), or HR department, about their experience. Saying whether it is good or bad is important because, without doing so, the client really won’t know how the firm they’ve taken on is performing. Many RPOs, in particular, are now assessed on the quality of the candidate experience, and pre-employment screening can be a source of much frustration. In this context, the RPO will want to hear about a bad experience quickly because it helps them find and correct the cause before it becomes an issue with their client. And, of course, creating this communication loop ultimately helps support best practice in the industry.

One complaint that IT contractors raise is about their screening company appearing to ‘push out’ the screening process – i.e. prolonging it, in order to rack up hourly income. In our experience, this is unlikely the reason why a screening seems to be getting drawn out. Most traditional screening firms are paid for undertaking a specific set of checks (rather than per hour or day), and if they can successfully verify the information quickly, they tend to be able to reduce their internal costs and make more money. So it’s actually the very opposite of the situation suspected.

What IT contractors need for screening, or might need

A shorter checking and screening process is also what almost all IT contractors we come across suggest they’d like. The best way to achieve that is to have all the information you’re going to need to hand.  

So the following is a list of the standard items that you, the contractor, should have ready if you are going to be screened for an IT contract with a financial firm in 2015:

  • Passport / Identity document (must contain a photo ID)
  • Visa details if you are from outside the EU
  • Proof of address in the UK (and previous addresses for up to five years)
  • Details of previous employment/contracts (again, for the last 5 years)
  • Academic and professional qualifications.

The following is a list of items that you, the contractor, could be asked about if you are going to be screened for an IT contract with a financial firm in 2015. The list isn’t exhaustive but it includes more of the items/requests/demands that IT contractors tend to find extraordinary:

  • Criminal record checks
  • Evidence for gaps in employment, which may cover travel receipts/tickets, passport stamps, invoices for home refurbishment, and birth certificate (to prove maternity paternity)
  • The details of people not in your family who can give you a character/personal reference.

Please note, IT contracts with government or public sector organisations follow the same core lists (there is a British Standard BS 7858 for screening). However, some roles and contracts require additional security clearance (the “National Security Vetting”), where a more detailed set of questions can be asked if the role/contract is considered sensitive or critical in regard to national security infrastructure.

Final considerations

As mentioned, having these items available will make the screening process quicker. But bear in mind, the length of the pre-employment screening process varies a lot, and is dependent on the scope and scale of the checks to be undertaken by the particular organisation about to engage you. In some instances, the process can take up to 8 weeks, but for most firms you can expect the process to take about 3 weeks. Either way, don’t be afraid to ask at the outset how long the process should take.

Politely requesting the timeline of the process from your screener really can make you feel better, and not just because it’s nice to ask them a question when they’re asking you so many! Indeed, most IT contractors tend to suggest that if they’re ‘in-the-know’ about the screening process at the start, they’re happier to oblige and find it less painful, at least most of the time.

The author, Simon Bichara, is the founder of Hired By Me, a free-to-register screening firm that lets temporary professionals carry their screening from job-to-job, and lets them publish full skills and performance feedback on their work without exposing assessors to the legal risk of a traditional reference.

Editor's Note: Related Reading -

Financial services contracts: what's involved in pre-employment screening

Security Clearance Code of Practice is a welcome step

Contractors' Questions: Any IR35 risk to 'pre-employment' survey?

Wednesday 25th February 2015