Secrets of the Job Hunt


Sunday, December 03, 2006

Background Checks: Close Does Not Count

“Step right up; get your background checks here! No waiting, no worries, and did I mention cheap!?” Sound like a carnival atmosphere? While few people would seriously consider it, asking the opinion of the Age/Weight Guesser at the county fair about your candidate’s criminal history may actually rival the accuracy of a cheap, instant criminal database background check.

Simply stated, the faster and cheaper the background check, the more likely it will have overlooked existing criminal records. It is also more likely that you’ll violate personal privacy laws by using ineligible or illegally obtained information against a candidate (or the wrong person) without even knowing it. The worst way to find out you are using poor information is under the scrutiny of a criminal or civil lawsuit for negligent or discriminatory hiring practices.

Cheap, instant background checks inevitably involve commercial databases. Private companies purchase information from a wide variety of sources across the country, often claiming to catalog “millions” of criminal records. Among the problems inherent in instant criminal database searches is that it is extremely difficult to correlate the geographic areas covered by the database with the areas in which your candidates have lived. Most databases can sound extremely comprehensive by rattling off a variety of sources of information: county felony/ misdemeanor records, sex offender registries, departments of correction, and “proprietary” databases, among others. The problem is that database vendors cannot mandate information or updates from any of these sources, leaving significant coverage gaps in the midst of each of them.

There are entire states, including California, that do not supply county felony/misdemeanor records to commercial database vendors. Furthermore, once a criminal record is entered into a database, it becomes static information. Criminal records are maintained in county courthouses, not in national databases. If a county court expunges a record, or deletes it through a first-time diversion program, it cannot be used as criteria for an employment decision. Similar to the geographic coverage gaps present in database searches, no one can say if or how often these updates make it into the databases.

To minimize your risk of negligent hiring litigation, a process must be put in place that maximizes the probability that existing criminal information will be found, while providing safeguards and oversight to ensure any records found are current, accurate, and associated with the correct individual. Criminal records should be researched on a county-by-county basis, corresponding with your candidate’s address history. Criminal databases by themselves do not accomplish these goals and will provide little defense under negligent hiring scrutiny.

At the fair, a bad guess usually costs management a stuffed animal or other inexpensive trinket. Making a bad guess in hiring can cost your company significantly more. Contact BIS for more information on tailoring a reliable and legally compliant screening program to the specific needs of your company.

Background Information Services, Inc. is an industry leading provider of employment screening solutions that will manage risk in the unlikely event of employment litigation.

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