Don't underestimate the power (for good and evil) of your security service
Security hiring represents a challenge for vacation properties because there are unique liability risks involved, both from the actions and the inaction of guards. Heavy-handed security can alienate guests and lead to confrontations, while lax security can leave guests at risk of injury or theft. Or worse, poorly screened guards may end up victimizing guests themselves.
Don’t leave your business open to a security disaster: here’s how to hire guards that won’t leave you in legal peril By Tony Bridges Originally published in the Feb/Mar 2011 issue of 850 Business Magazine
If you own or manage a vacation destination, choosing the right security staff can be one of the most important decisions you make as your property begins gearing up for the spring tourist season.
Security hiring represents a challenge for properties because there are unique liability risks involved, both from the actions and the inaction of guards. Heavy-handed security can alienate guests and lead to confrontations, while lax security can leave guests at risk of injury or theft. Or worse, poorly screened guards may end up victimizing guests themselves.
Any of the above means headaches and potentially costly civil suits for the property.
Fortunately, with a little due diligence, a smart property manager can limit the risks and help prevent security disasters. It’s mainly a matter of knowing exactly who you’re hiring to provide for your guests’ safety.
“Whoever you hire are agents of you,” says David A. Simon, a Ft. Walton Beach attorney specializing in premises liability. “Property owners need to insure themselves against these employees. It helps spread the risk.”
Liability is part of doing business
By Florida law, the person who possesses or controls a property is responsible for providing visitors with a safe environment. That includes taking steps to prevent criminal activity, especially if crimes have occurred on the property in the past or can reasonably be expected to occur in the future.
For example, if the parking lot at your resort has been the scene of car burglaries and fistfights, then it’s your legal responsibility to make a reasonable effort to keep such incidents from recurring. One way you might do that is to hire security guards to patrol the parking lot.
But hiring security officers is not enough by itself to avoid liability in the event something goes wrong.
The legal concept of respondeat superior — Latin for “let the master answer” — makes you responsible for whatever those security guards do while acting as your agent.
What happens if a guard tackles an innocent person, or wanders off his post while a guest is being assaulted, or abuses his authority to sexually harass female guests? The civil, and sometimes criminal, liability still falls on the property and the manager responsible for operating the property.
And those kinds of things happen.
Simon, who has been litigating premises liability cases for 36 years, said he had a recent case in which a condo security guard handcuffed beachgoers — even though he had no arrest powers and no legal authority — just because they cut through the condo property to get to the sand.
Two years ago, Panama City Beach police arrested a hotel security guard after he sexually assaulted a teenage girl on Spring Break and threw her from a balcony. The guard had been hired even though he had a felony background and was wanted in another state.
Another condominium guard was arrested recently in Destin after allegedly being caught using his master key to enter a unit and rifle through the owner’s belongings.
Protecting your property against these disasters starts at hiring.
“Obviously a background check should be made on any person who’s going to be dealing with the public,” said Simon. “That’s where the liability comes in, when they don’t do something they should have done.”
What kind of security should you choose?
Whether you run a sprawling beachfront resort or a small mom-and-pop motel, you have three basic options when it comes to offering security to your guests:
- Hire off-duty law enforcement officers through the local sheriff or police department.
- Contract with a security company that is responsible for hiring and assigning guards.
- Hire your own private security guards as your direct employees.
The first choice is the simplest, and the one that Simon recommends.
Law enforcement agencies typically have an off-duty employment coordinator who, with a few days’ notice, can arrange for officers to provide security at your property. Scheduling is flexible and reliable.
With off-duty law enforcement officers, you know you’re getting highly trained and experienced staff who have been carefully screened for suitability. They know how to spot criminal activity, defuse tense situations and control crowds. Plus, they typically wear law enforcement uniforms, which act as a deterrent. And, even though they are off-duty, they can still make arrests if they see a crime occur.
Property managers are “getting much more experience and expertise for what they’re paying,” Simon said.
The only downside is the cost. Hiring off-duty deputies or police officers can usually run $25 per hour, or more.
Alternately, there are dozens of local security companies, as well as branches of several national operations, that offer services in Northwest Florida. They typically work on a contract, charging the property by the number of man-hours provided over a set time period.
One of the benefits of using a security contractor is that the company is licensed and regulated by the state and hires only licensed security guards.
In order to get a security guard license, a person has to have 40 hours of training and submit to a fingerprint check through the FBI’s National Crime Information Center. Applicants with recent felony convictions or any convictions for misdemeanor offenses that might be relevant to the job, such as theft or assault, are denied.
That means the guards you get are pre-screened by the state and usually by the security company, as well, which offers your property a degree of protection from liability if an incident occurs. Just make sure that you keep a copy of the security company’s certificate of insurance on file, Simon said.
The cost is lower than law enforcement — in the $10–$20 per hour range — but the turnover is much higher, since many companies are constantly cycling through guards.
The Resort Collection, which includes Edgewater Beach & Golf Resort in Panama City Beach, decided several years ago to contract with a private security company, according to Paul Wohlford, vice president of sales and marketing.
In addition, the resort hired an internal safety director to coordinate security and augments its staff with off-duty law enforcement for special events, he said.
A key factor in choosing a security contractor, Wohlford said, is making sure the staff is not only proficient and competent in security issues, but also in dealing with vacation guests.
“We need good memories created, and that includes all the security people,” he said. “Security and safety come first, but they also have to have a sense of hospitality. We want a very welcoming feeling when you come in the gates.”
Hiring your own security staff
Going it on your own is the least expensive option — a part-time guard with no benefits will run about $8–$10 per hour — but it’s also the one with the most risk.
Technically, properties can hire anyone they want to handle security duties. State law does not require a security license for “any unarmed individual who works exclusively for an employer … but there has to be an employer-employee relationship,” said Liz Compton, public information director for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which regulates guards.
However, there still is the issue of liability.
Remember, as the employer, you will have a legal responsibility to determine whether an applicant is suitable for employment in a security position. And you will be responsible for discovering anything a “reasonable person” would know or should know in the applicant’s background that would disqualify him or her.
At a minimum, that means you need to thoroughly check an applicant’s criminal history, motor vehicle history and past employment for any record of theft, violence, drug use or irresponsible driving, such as DUI.
It can cost up to $100 or more to run such checks on a job applicant, depending on whether you do it yourself or hire an employment screening company. But failing to do so could cost even more in a civil action.
Regardless of the background, Simon said he still wouldn’t suggest hiring someone without security qualifications.
“When you’ve got someone with no experience, you’re giving a wannabe a cloak of authority,” he said. “There’s a danger there.”
Background checks and the Fair Credit Reporting Act
Many companies, such as LexisNexis, offer employee screening services. Even though these third-party background reports may not contain credit information, they’re still governed by the FCRA, which sets certain rules for what kind of information can be used and how it is obtained. For example, only criminal convictions from the last seven years can be included. Also, if an employer decides not to hire based on something in the report, that must be disclosed to the applicant. Be sure to familiarize yourself with these requirements before using an employee screening service. For more information, check out the “Small Business Owner Background Check Guide” from the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.
Do-it-yourself employee background check
These are the steps to a very basic background check. You will need the applicant’s full name (including nicknames), date of birth, Social Security Number, and a 5-year address and employment history.
- The Florida Department of Corrections will show you whether an individual has served time in state prison since 1992 or is currently on felony probation. Verify any information with DOC. Cost: Free
- If the applicant has lived in Florida for the last five years, you can go to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to run a statewide criminal history check. This report will show all arrests in Florida. You will need to check with individual county clerks where arrests were made to confirm disposition of cases. Cost: $24.
- If the applicant has lived outside the state, you also will need to check with the county clerk in each county of residence. Many counties offer some records online, but public records laws vary from state to state. To research a particular state, visit the Open Government Guide. When running county searches, make sure to check variations of names. Cost: varies by county.
- To check federal cases, you can use the PACER system (registration required) to search by court district. Cost: $.08 per page. Fee is waived if the balance on your account does not exceed $10 per quarter.
- GOOD TO KNOW: No matter what you see on the Internet, there is no such thing as a service that provides a national criminal records check. Law enforcement agencies will run fingerprint checks for certain professions, such as daycare workers, for a small fee, but usually only those mandated by state or federal law.
Motor Vehicle Records
While certain Florida driver’s license information is public, the federal Driver Privacy Protection Act makes it difficult for a private third party to obtain complete and accurate information. The best practice is to require an applicant to obtain a copy of his 3- or 7-year driving history from the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
This requires calling previous employers and speaking to former supervisors. While most companies have policies of confirming only dates of employment, salary and rehire eligibility, you’ll occasionally reach someone willing to talk a little more. Be alert for any red flags, such as factual allegations of workplace theft or violence. However, be careful when making decisions based on information gained in this way.
The best place to start is the registrar’s office of the school your applicant claims to have attended. The registrar will either help you, or, increasingly likely, direct you to an independent verification service. One of the largest is the National Student Clearinghouse where you can search online to verify a degree. Cost: Varies by school, but should not be more than $5–$10.
Verifying military service takes time because it involves sending a request to the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Mo., and waiting for a response via snail mail. However, every discharged vet receives a copy of a form called a DD 214. This form contains the veteran’s dates of service, military job, geographic assignments, rank and awards. If a vet is claiming military skills related to the job, you may ask to see this form.