When hiring a new employee, an employer must coordinate a myriad of onboarding tasks, such as payroll, benefits, and ID card. The process seems to involve an endless sea of paperwork. Often lost in the shuffle, the Form I-9 process may represent the most critical -- and potentially damaging -- of these onboarding tasks.

Completing Form I-9 seems like a matter of simple data entry: name, address, date of birth, document number, document expiration, sign and date. However, the I-9 presents numerous pitfalls for employers and, in light of recent enforcement activity, the proper completion of the form is critical to risk management efforts. In addition, with a new I-9 form likely to be released early in 2013, now is the time to analyze and improve I-9 processes.

Because of the high risk of fines for even seemingly minor I-9 errors, many employers turn to electronic I-9 software programs to minimize the risk of errors and to maximize compliance with I-9 -- and E-Verify -- laws, rules, and regulations. A proper software system combined with a comprehensive compliance program greatly reduces the risk of I-9 related sanctions.

  1. "Idiot Proof"

The best electronic I-9 software programs contain quality control mechanisms making it difficult for an employee to improperly complete Section 1 of the form. For example, some programs prevent the employee from signing the form if data is missing or does not conform to built-in data checks, which require, for instance, that a social security number contain 9 digits and that an address be a physical address rather than a P.O. Box. The same is true in Section 2: the best electronic programs prevent overdocumentation, require the employer to complete all relevant fields, require document numbers to conform to a defined format, and integrate with onboarding and other HR systems to ensure completion -- and reverification -- of forms on time. All of these quality control mechanisms can help employers avoid fines in the event of an ICE inspection.

  1. Easier to Locate I-9s

Employers who have undergone an ICE inspection know that it is difficult to gather the required documents within the provided timeframe. An electronic program allows employers to avoid digging through cardboard boxes in the office basement, trying to locate I-9s from another location, or sorting through employee files in an attempt to gather all of the required I-9s.

In some electronic I-9 systems, employers may access the I-9s from anywhere in the world, sorted by location, and even batch printed for presentation to ICE. Most electronic systems also allow for the storage of related identification and employment authorization documents, attestation documents for states such as Colorado, and E-Verify documents together with the I-9.

  1. Built-in Tickler Systems

Most electronic I-9 systems track employment authorization expiration dates and notify employers well in advance of the needed reverification date. This allows the employer to reach out to the employee 90, 60, and 30 days in advance (or at other defined dates) to help ensure that there is no gap in employment authorization (or documentation thereof). Because a failure to reverify work authorization is amongst the most serious of I-9 violations, such tickler systems are key, particularly for employers who hire large numbers of nonimmigrant visa holders whose employment authorizations expire and require extension or renewal.

  1. Seamless Integration with E-Verify

Most electronic I-9 systems are provided by E-Verify Web Services Designated Agents, which means that the vendor can take information from the I-9s that their clients complete and send the information to the E-Verify system without the need to separately log in to the government website.

The most comprehensive I-9 systems allow employers to customize their E-Verify configuration so that E-Verify queries are completed only on I-9s from designated hiring sites. These systems also automatically update when an E-Verify query status changes (from "tentative nonconfirmation" to "employment authorized," for example) and may even be set up to send e-mail notifications to the responsible employer representatives when an E-Verify query requires action.

  1. Data Security

Despite concerns about the privacy of electronically-stored personal information, if an electronic system employs proper data security measures, the sensitive data located on I-9 forms may actually be more secure than when using paper I-9s. Paper I-9s are often more likely to be misplaced, inadvertently destroyed, or viewed by unauthorized personnel than electronic I-9s. As noted below, however, a system that does not utilize proper data security measures may leave an employer, and its employees, more vulnerable than ever.

To help navigate the endless sea of paperwork when hiring a new employee, an employer should consider moving to an electronic I-9 system. These systems provide numerous efficiencies, safeguards, and maintenance benefits to simplify the process and mitigate risk. However, as with any purchase, buyer beware, as many commercially available systems also contain latent problems, which may lead to increased exposure. So, prudent employers will comparison shop and carefully review software systems prior to settling on the system that fits their culture and needs. If an employer decides to take the plunge, it must carefully and methodically review the system and related compliance program to ensure safe sailing.