Best Practices for Employment Background Checks

Stressed young girl talking to recruiters reviewing her background check information.
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Screening job candidates has become an increasingly important step in the hiring process, yet not all employers use employment background checks to their best advantage. What should all employers understand about conducting successful employment background checks to ensure that they build the best teams?

Look for Relevant Data in an Employment Background Check

This is the information that employers should seek to find when they perform essential and professional background checks. Background checks can include an array of personal information about job applicants, such as:

  • County criminal history
  • Verification of address
  • Known sexual offender
  • Employment history verification
  • Driving history
  • Education history and degrees
  • Health fraud and abuse
  • Reference verification
  • Drug testing
  • County civil history
  • Federal criminal history
  • Federal civil history
  • Professional license verification
  • Social media screening
  • Credit checks

Employers may find information about any or all of these background areas without difficulty by checking internal resources or through the use of a qualified service provider. Note that employers can–but they may not want to pursue–each of these background checks depending on their relevance to the job they are filling.

For example, the average employee doesn't handle money in most jobs but employees in an accounting office or who run a cash register do. Thus, a credit check is only necessary for employees who will handle the financial end of your business. Otherwise, the credit check is invasive and unnecessary.

Employers also need to make certain that they are using legal and best practices in areas such as social media background checks. In some cases–as with social media screening–employers may want to leverage a third-party vendor to mitigate violations of the law.

The greatest challenge for employers is knowing how to weigh the information obtained during the employment decision-making process. Another is to ensure that their background check process adheres to state and federal laws.

For example, many states restrict the time period of past history that you may consider. Most screening providers will relay information for the past seven years. To ensure that you are compliant with the law, talk with a knowledgeable provider, an attorney, or your state department of labor.

Know When to Consider Criminal History

Most employers who conduct employment background checks rely heavily on criminal history when screening; however, that information alone rarely paints a complete picture of any job candidate. What may look like a red flag could actually be a red herring. So employers need to thoughtfully consider how a criminal past may actually affect job results.

For instance, a citation for walking a dog off-leash or for fishing without a license does create a criminal history, but it does little to portray the type of skills a potentially reliable employee could bring to the job.

On the other hand, when a criminal past stems from a more serious violation, employers must consider whether the nature of the crime relates to the skills necessary for the job. Be careful to look at the big picture and decide how any criminal history may, in fact, relate to the job in question.

Most importantly, to ensure Equal Employment Opportunity Commission compliance, do not adopt a blanket policy regarding criminal history in your hiring. That is, eliminate statements in your policy and handbooks that state such policies as our company does not hire felons or our company does not hire anyone with a criminal record. Never say never.

Discern Patterns From Background Data

Thorough screening procedures provide details far beyond a criminal history that may be the best indicator of an employee's capabilities. Employment history, for one, helps to confirm job experience but also sheds light on potential issues such as frequent moves, career changes, and other factors that could indicate a potential employee might not be a good long-term candidate.

Look for patterns that show how an employee strives to succeed–or how an employee displays consistent difficulties–to get a good impression of her or his ability to take on the job. Be careful, because applicants inflate their resumes more often than you may think. If you are considering someone based on skills listed, proper verification of employment, education, and licenses is a must. It is also a great way to screen out dishonest applicants.

Don't Overlook Crucial Information in a Background Check

Some indicators of a job applicant's capabilities might surprise you. A background check might reveal a personality trait or unique response to a situation that could be a real asset to your team, despite the fact it isn't highlighted in the applicant's resume.

If you make the effort to conduct a good employment background check, use all of the information you can to your advantage. As important as it is to find areas of concern, it can be just as important to mine for strengths.

Filter Information Carefully to Avoid Discrimination

Most importantly, use background information wisely. A single concern raised by an employment background check—such as confirmation of criminal history—should never automatically eliminate a candidate from consideration. Instead, consider a candidate's entire presentation and eliminate him or her based on objective details pertinent to the ability to accomplish the job.

Document the hiring team’s recruitment effort and decision-making process with as much detail as possible.

Unfortunately, many employers don't realize that they unknowingly discriminate in the hiring process. If applicants answer honestly about past histories such as an existing criminal record, an automatic rejection based on that undesirable answer constitutes discrimination. Personal information from the past cannot solely decide an applicant's fate, so be sure to Ban the Box with an auto-rejection process and consider the whole candidate.

To avoid discriminatory hiring, be sure to follow the guidelines set forth by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission with regard to criminal history, including the type of crime that was committed, the nature of the work that must be accomplished and the amount of time that has elapsed before tossing that job application.

Discuss Concerns With Job Candidates

Be prepared to share all background information with applicants. Employers must legally provide this information if requested–and also if any of the information found precludes those applicants from being hired. But remember, you have an opportunity to put the data into perspective by generating a discussion about the issue with the potential employee.

Remember, the employment background check is a way to obtain information to aid your decision-making. Use that information to your advantage. Work through your questions with the prospective employee instead of dropping your candidate without the chance to explain.

Avoid Costly Mistakes As You Approach Employment Background Check

The greatest error in conducting background checks is not incorporating them into the screening process in the first place. The cost of replacing a bad hire far outweighs the value of a good background check, so put your procedures in place from the get-go.

Additionally, you can save your organization time and money when pursuing background checks.

  • Work with a reputable firm that conducts the work themselves, at the source, without automation.
  • Adhere to all adverse action procedures, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, and other state and local laws.
  • Have an attorney knowledgeable in this field review your process.
  • Devise a list of background checks that are pertinent to assessing the qualifications of candidates for each of your available jobs. Courts are increasingly finding for plaintiffs if the check that affected their candidacy was irrelevant to the job.

The Bottom Line on Background Checks

Overall, keep in mind that a good business is built on people who fulfill their duties responsibly. Any information that is revealed to you when conducting pre-employment screening is information about real individuals. Whether that information provides positive or negative signs about a candidate’s potential fit within your organization, be respectful and responsible about the way that you handle the information.

Information from an employment background check can impact many people who have a stake in your business and its reputation. The way you handle candidate background information can impact the candidates' lives as well. It is a serious step in the talent management lifecycle that deserves proper care every step of the way.