Matters of trust - background checking of cleaners

29th of September 2014
Matters of trust - background checking of cleaners

Background checking of cleaners is increasingly becoming standardised practice within the industry with companies seeking to ensure that their cleaners have been ‘vetted’ prior to starting work. But why are such checks deemed necessary? Eamon Jubbawy of Onfido, an employment screening firm offering a data driven platform for employers, writes for ECJ.

Imagine you are a homeowner looking for a cleaner: it is vital to know the person who enters your house can be trusted. Cleaning positions frequently involve a high degree of trust – a homeowner does not want to have to keep a watchful eye over a cleaner’s every move but instead be reassured that the cleaner can be left to perform the job without supervision. Very often cleaners will be given their own set of keys, potentially allowing unrestricted access to a person’s home and so clearly there is a strong need for trust.

Checks available

Background checking, therefore, acts as a way of screening potential cleaners in order to reveal facts that may lead you to question whether a particular cleaner can be trusted. But what sorts of check can a cleaning company carry out to help inform this decision? One obvious way of vetting cleaners is to collect references. Written confirmation that a cleaner has been previously allowed unrestricted access to homes or offices and that no issues were encountered is positive evidence that a cleaner can be trusted.

It is vitally important, however, to ensure that references are validated and not simply taken at face value. At Onfido we have found that roughly nine per cent of applicants have provided false employers or fabricated nonexistent jobs. References should therefore be approached with caution and steps should be taken to ensure they are accurate.

Moreover, references may not be available in all circumstances and, in any case, more and more cleaning companies are finding they prefer to run additional checks as part of the vetting process. Checking criminal records is one option, and is legally required in some circumstances in certain countries – for example, if a cleaner will be working in a school or at a care home. Another added complication is that in particular countries, there are different levels of criminal record check available: for example the UK has a basic, standard and enhanced check.

As a rule of thumb, unless the cleaner will be working somewhere in contact with children or vulnerable adults, then cleaning companies will generally only be permitted to carry out a basic criminal record check. This will show any unspent convictions within the past five years. These checks can be a useful vetting tool because they will reveal, for example, whether a cleaner has a string of past convictions for theft, which could raise some doubts as to whether they can be trusted to be unsupervised.

Criminal record checks often take several weeks to be returned and so in circumstances where they are not legally required, they are increasingly being viewed as a lengthy and costly form of vetting. Perhaps for this reason, there is an alternative form of background checking that is becoming increasingly popular within the cleaning sector. Many companies have started carrying out a combination of identity and financial checks on their cleaners.

An identity check will ensure the cleaner is the person they say they are and makes sure they are not using any counterfeit documents – if a person is attempting to use a false identity, it is clear evidence of dishonesty and it seems quite likely that person has something else to hide and therefore cannot be trusted. This identity checking is then combined with a form of financial checking to investigate whether a cleaner has a past history of matters such as insolvency or bankruptcies.

Why are these matters deemed significant? The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the world’s largest chartered HR and development body, conducted a study on staff fraud and dishonesty – an analysis of past cases revealed a link between those suffering from financial difficulty or debts and those who committed acts of fraud.

Illegal workers

Due to the level of trust bestowed upon cleaners, occasions for opportunistic thieving may be plentiful and so there is certainly a risk that the temptation to steal could prove to be significant for an individual who is in financial desperation. Recognition of this risk should not, however, be taken too far - it is certainly not the case that every person in financial difficulty is more likely to steal.

These checks are nonetheless useful because they will flag matters to be discussed with a potential recruit and, additionally, asking cleaners to disclose matters such as bankruptcies gives an opportunity to demonstrate honesty. These checks, therefore, allow a company to advertise all their cleaners have been ‘vetted’ and can be trusted and so it is not surprising they are becoming increasing popular within the cleaning sector.

European governments have jointly worked on proposals to reduce the number of illegal migrant workers in the last few years in an attempt to stem the growth of a shadow economy for illegal migrants; as a result, they are proposing to get tougher on employers who exploit illegal labour. The OECD carried out a study on the most common industries where illegal migrant workers are employed in six OECD countries – France, Italy, Portugal, Spain and the USA.

The study concluded that certain parts of the services sector, such as catering and in particular sanitation and cleaning, are increasingly shunned by nationals, with the gaps being filled by illegal immigrants from all over the world. In the vast majority of cases, employers are unknowingly hiring these workers, so some of the major European governments have recently focused on attempting to educate firms about the extent of the problem and the potential dangers.

The UK Home Office consultation document entitled ‘Strengthening and Simplifying the Civil Penalty Scheme to Prevent Illegal Working’ set out the basic steps the UK government intends to take over the coming months. Germany’s interior minister has also called for tougher penalties on employers hiring illegal migrants.

Continuous obligation

Why is this important for cleaning firms to know? Most large European nations are looking to increase the fines for hiring illegal immigrants. Currently the UK Border Agency will fine a company 25,000 euros for every illegal migrant worker being employed; 72 million in fines were handed out to the end of 2012, and over half of the companies who received fines ended up shutting down or declaring bankruptcy as a result. Stricter still, the employer can be jailed for up to two years and receive an unlimited fine if they were to knowingly employ an illegal worker.

This obligation on the employer is continuous, meaning that as a cleaning company, it is not enough to simply carry out right to work checks when your cleaners first begin their work with you. The immigration status of an individual can change, and often the employee will fail to notify their employer.

Whilst there have been efforts to simplify right to work checks for compliant, legitimate employers, there is still no clear word on the best method to carry out these checks. Visual inspection of relevant documentation is usually sufficient for cleaners but for a more thorough check with a full audit trail, electronic checks are recommended.


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