The majority of employers today use background checks as part of the employment process. With the rise of the Internet and its search and social media assets, some employers are taking a do-it-yourself approach to the research. There are risks and rewards in this approach, but we caution that the information widely available on the Internet is often unverifiable for accuracy. Further, some of the most important information is not easily available to the general public (e.g., up to date state and local arrest and conviction records).
There are two major factors that determine the quality and reliability of a background check. First, the design of the background screening process itself is a critical factor that shapes both the quality of the results and whether the search complies with applicable laws. Then, a “thorough” background check should be designed for the job in question—researching all the sources relevant to the job—and implemented through searches of reliable sources.
1. A Well-Structured Background Screening Process
Current best practices for background screening aim to find accurate, relevant information about a candidate while minimizing search costs, all in compliance with applicable laws. Since some of the case laws and guidelines from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) are shifting the emphasis on screening more and more toward individualized assessments, managing cost while maintaining quality requires close attention to process.
A well-designed screening process will include certain characteristics:
Employers will not use blanket or “check the box” criteria such as universal rejection of applicants for criminal history (with some exceptions). In most cases, this means that background checks will not be performed at least until a first interview but more often after a conditional offer is made, and only with explicit signed acceptance by the applicant. This approach not only improves compliance, but it also helps to manage cost.
Specific background research for a job will be based on a role-related risk assessment. This assessment will point to factors inherent in the job’s authority and performance requirements that will define what the employer needs to know about the applicants.
If the background check uncovers a criminal history, the employer should conduct an individualized assessment to determine if the history is relevant before rejecting the applicant—that is, whether the specific criminal conviction is job-related. Some of the factors that might be considered include the character of the offense, the time lapsed since the conviction with no intervening criminal history, evidence of rehabilitation, and personal references.
In cases where background research conducted by a screening agency indicates that an applicant should be rejected, the employer will follow a “2-step adverse action” process. This process involves informing the applicant that he or she might be rejected due to history, and gives them a chance to refute the information.
2. A Thorough Background Check
Since job requirements vary so much, there is no one background check that applies to every job. In general, the higher the level of the job, with greater authority and autonomy and with the ability to more deeply affect the organization, the more comprehensive the background screening. However, even for lower level jobs there can be significant risk factors that suggest more intensive screening.
A thorough background check will include research into many facets of the applicant’s history. The search areas might include:
Basic identity verification: Finding the applicant’s Social Security Number links him or her to numerous other data sources and locations, and provides a critical trail of information.
Multiple criminal background sources: Criminal history information resides in federal, state, and local jurisdictions with some overlap and inconsistencies. Depending on the job, these many sources may all have to be searched.
Sex offender records: Access to the Department of Justice portal on this issue gives a comprehensive way to review state-level records.
Personal history verification: Employment and educational attainment, as well as professional credentials, should be verified if they are related to job performance and/or the organization’s liability.
Credit history: The applicant’s personal financial history may be relevant for jobs that give access to financial assets or cash flow.
Civil court records: Civil judgments regarding lawsuits may be entered at either the County or Federal level, and might be relevant for candidates for many kinds of positions.
Social media accounts: Social media are not a “free” source of information; they are subject to the same kinds of laws that other information sources are. However, a professionally-conducted search that complies with legal restrictions can provide useful personal information.
A thorough background search can help to mitigate many kinds of human risk. Employers who invest in well-designed processes that provide comprehensive information on job-related factors will have a much better chance to hire the right person for the job.