How to Get Serious about Employee Background Checks

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You’ve culled through your candidates to fill an opening in your business and finally landed on someone who seems like a perfect fit. No matter how much you like your choice, though, you know better than to just trust your gut without some verification. Thorough background checks are a vital step not only in confirming your decision about the person, but in identifying and preventing hiring decisions that could potentially harm your business, employees or customers.

It’s estimated that about three of every four businesses perform background screenings on every prospective employee. Professional background checks typically include a person’s work history, credit history, driving record, education, professional licenses and certifications, criminal record, drug screening, and use of social media.

Yet, the biggest disservice a business owner can do to themselves is fail to ask enough questions of the company providing their background checks. Some companies have reduced staff and send the bulk of their verification services overseas, where the process likely is streamlined in a somewhat cursory fashion.

Workers, unfamiliar with the way U.S. courts work, perform the equivalent of just pushing a few buttons to see if someone has a criminal record in a national database. The fact is that many more crimes are prosecuted in the local district or superior courts. So if that attendant you want to hire for, say, an elder care home has no criminal record in the national database, he’ll likely pass the background check — despite having a record of assaults or substance abuse in state or lower courts.

How easy is it for someone to game the system with this kind of background check? Very. It’s an open secret among those trying to slip through the net to simply provide a different birth date with your name on the application.

Just look at the serious lawsuits against app-based matchmaking businesses who fail to live up to the implied promises they make of doing thorough background checks: ride-hailing services, dog-sitting apps, handyman finders. Care.com was the subject of a Wall Street Journal investigation that found “approved” caregivers with criminal histories molested, assaulted or even murdered people they were caring for, and subsequently, the company removed thousands of individuals claiming to be state-licensed childcare providers who were not.

These background check farms can also spur lawsuits from the simplest errors: The John Smith you rejected because of his criminal record may not be the John Smith you were considering for a position. Database searches cannot confirm conviction data with the original court — that requires a professional, not an algorithm.

Best practices for background checks

Once a candidate signs a pre-employment authorization, everything on their resume is allowed to be verified. Pre-Employment screening should always include criminal, employment and education history; consumer credit reports and Social Security fraud check and motor vehicle records; and professional licenses and certifications.

It cannot be over-emphasized that you should also verify that your employees have maintained industry-specific licenses and certifications. States regularly require background checks before issuing a license, say, to an elder-care worker. But afterward, it’s up to the employer to make sure they maintain the license. Sometimes when something goes south, the first thing attorneys will do is look into the person’s background and if something’s amiss, the employer is on the hook.

In the long run, it’s better to know what your employees are up to. You need to inform them ahead of time, however, that you will be conducting a brief background screening every year, including a check on court proceedings and their driving record.

Bear in mind there are also several no-go areas for employers who conduct their own in-house background checks.

So-called “ban the box” laws have been implemented in many states—regulating what employers can ask prospective employees before they are hired, when an employer can inquire about a prospective employee’s criminal history, and limiting employers in how far back in someone’s criminal history they can ask questions about. In California, for instance, employers are limited to seven years.

But, an employment screening company can let an employer know if there are older public records of felonies. They cannot provide the record but can provide a case number. Misdemeanors older than seven years are absolute no-go areas, as are arrests for cannabis possession or use. Civil matters, such as no-contact orders or temporary restraining orders, are okay to disclose.

I recommend staying away from outside USA Pre-Employment screening providers simply because they do not have the same capabilities as inside USA companies to properly and accurately identify all reportable items to the employer. Of course you can save a bundle; however, in the long run you will pay the price.

Background check companies are not allowed to report if someone has ever filed a workers’ compensation case against a prior employer. In California and other states, employers can just go online to the state’s website and look up that information for themselves.

Hiring a new employee can be exhilarating. It can also be fraught with danger if you’re not careful.

First published in Forbes Magazine