Few phrases evoke such perfect imagery as “the elephant in the room.” What could better represent something in a room that you can’t help but notice than a six-ton-plus animal? How could you not talk about something like that?

There is an elephant in the hourly hiring room that nobody likes to talk about. But Snagajob doesn’t avoid tough hourly hiring topics, so here we go.

Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification (EEV), audits led by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are on the rise.

ICE was established in 2003, and for the first two years the agency focused mainly on locations that involved national security. But over time, ICE expanded its scope to all businesses, big and small, regardless of industry or location. The agency has also deepened its reach into businesses and has begun prosecuting owners, managers and human resources personnel who hire illegal aliens.

ICE has been ramping up audits since 2009. In 2010, ICE agents audited 2,740 companies, resulting in a record $7 million in fines, according to Homeland Security Newswire.

It is more important than ever for businesses to complete, verify and store I-9s properly. Non-compliance can lead to forfeited profits, fines or prison time.

The government created the E-Verify system to allow businesses to determine if employees are eligible to work in the United States. While the system is free for businesses to use, it is another step in the already complicated and time consuming onboarding process and can lead to errors if not done properly.

The best way for businesses to ensure they are compliant is to make I-9 completion and verification part of an integrated, online onboarding process. Online onboarding software will auto-populate forms, which reduces the chance of human error in completion, and will instantly verify employment status through the E-Verify system.

All businesses need to be ready for an ICE audit, and online onboarding software can store all forms in a safe, easy-to-access format. A happy side effect: less expenditure on printing paper forms and storing them.

If you own or manage multiple locations, online onboarding software also will ensure that I-9s are completed and stored consistently, reducing the need for extensive EEV training for managers across locations.

Like the elephant in the room, the possibility of I-9 audits needs to be acknowledged by all employers in the hourly industry. The importance placed on I-9 compliance has exponentially increased over the last five years, and the trend will continue as growing attention is placed on the incidence of companies hiring undocumented workers.

No business is immune to ICE audits, and an audit could happen at any time. There are partners who can help you develop a fail-safe process that will give you confidence in your EEV process by including I-9 completion and verification in an integrated online onboarding process. Proactive preparation is the safest way to avoid litigation, fines or penalties that could cost you a ton. Maybe not as much as the elephant in the room weighs, but certainly enough to try to avoid.