NCLC Report Says Errors by Criminal Background Check Providers Harm Workers and Businesses

criminal records

When things go wrong in the workplace – whether violence, theft, accidents, or worse – the conversation inevitably turns to what could have been done to prevent it and what more we should have known about the people involved. This is one reason why background checks are utilized by more than 90% of corporate America as a tool to make better and safer hiring decisions. Despite the clear value, background checks are also under fire by organizations and individuals who cite inaccurate criminal records as a culprit in keeping good people out of work.

The NationalConsumerLawCenter’s (NCLC) recently-released report, Broken Records: How Errors by Criminal Background Checking Companies Harm Workers and Businesses, addresses the specific issue of criminal records – one type of employee background check.  At issue are database records sold to employers that often contain inaccurate information as a result of one of the following:


  • Mismatching the subject of the report with another person
  • Revealing sealed or expunged information
  • Omitting information about how the case was disposed or resolved
  • Containing misleading information
  • Mischaracterizing the seriousness of the offense reported

Seeing the right person out the door for the wrong reason is something we all want to avoid so it’s no wonder the issue of inaccurate criminal records is of concern.

The Lure of ‘Instant’ Criminal Background Reports

The problem of background check errors is exacerbated by the number of web-based data brokers that offer instant access to criminal records. While appealing from a time and cost standpoint, these data brokers offer nothing more than, well, database searches. And unfortunately, raw data by itself can be dangerous if in the hands of people who don’t fully understand the data or its limitations, know what how best to use it, or how to verify its accuracy and completeness.

The Impact on Job Applicants

The NCLC report indicates that 93 percent of employers conduct criminal background checks for some potential applicants and 73 percent of conduct checks for all potential applicants. As such, criminal background checks are likely to impact the employment outcomes for the estimated 65 million adults (nearly one in four) in theUnited States who have a criminal record.

The reality of these numbers cannot be taken lightly – and this reality isn’t lost on most professional screening companies.

The NCLC report cites incidents where unreliable data leads companies to unfairly deny employment to innocent individuals. And it goes into great detail about the types of remedies it suggests to prevent bad information from ruining people’s employment opportunities.

Doing criminal records checks is a separate issue from doing them RIGHT.

The NCLC report rightly points out that the proper use of criminal records by an employer is a separate issue from the accurate and complete reporting of criminal background checks by a consumer reporting agency (CRA). The NCLC urges the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the US Congress and state legislatures to initiate an industry-wide clean-up of background check companies that report erroneous criminal record information to employers.

We couldn’t agree more.

The value of criminal records and employment screening as a whole is that, when accurate and complete, they help employers make better, more well-informed employment decisions. There is no serious question about this fact.

The first place people look when something goes awry in the workplace is the background of the wrong-doer.  Thus, the accuracy and completeness of criminal background checks is paramount to the integrity of employment screening.  That’s why you’ll find a strong and committed group of background screening companies allied under the banner of an organization called Concerned CRAs.  Concerned CRAs have rallied around the issue of reporting criminal records the right way.

Here’s what Concerned CRAs has to say about database criminal records:

Often marketed as “national” or “nationwide”, criminal records databases are compiled by private companies who purchase information from a patchwork of sources: county courts, state criminal records repositories, sex offender registries, and prison systems.

Criminal records database searches are valuable because they cover a much larger geographical area than searching only the jurisdictions associated with an employment applicant’s residential history. People may get into legal trouble in jurisdictions where they don’t live.  Because there are more than 3,200 counties in the United States, not all courts can be effectively checked on-site.

While criminal records databases are useful in identifying potential criminal records they should not be relied upon as accurate or complete for several reasons…


Concerned CRAs has even initiated a self-certification program in which like-minded background screening companies can certify their practices as being in line with accepted protocol.

We do take issue with many of the findings in the NCLC report. In several instances, the report seems to glaringly ignore facts that support the well-established and  legitimate business need for employers to conduct background screening. The report paints a one-sided picture of utopian human capital risk where everyone can be rehabilitated and recidivism is non-existent. As risk management experts, we know better.

At the same time, we enthusiastically embrace our responsibility as a professional background screener to follow reasonable procedures to assure the maximum possible accuracy of the criminal record information we report.  Not only does this mitigate our and our clients’ risk, but of equal importance it is the right thing to do for the job applicants and employees we screen.

Read the entire NCLC report here.

Learn how to hire a quality background screening company.

About MichaelGaul

Michael is a results-oriented marketing executive with over two decades of experience in employment screening, physical security, and business process management. Michael has deep experience in human capital risk management and a passion for educating business leaders and HR professionals on strategies that tangibly protect their interests. Michael serves on the Board of the Secure Cash and Transport Association (SCTA) and is a member of the Professional Background Screening Association (PBSA), and the American Society of Industrial Security (ASIS).
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