Alternatives to a Comprehensive Background Check?


In the current economic landscape, it would not be shocking to hear a company was considering eliminating background checks from their hiring program due to the cost of screening potential applicants. Businesses are under immense pressure to reduce expenditures wherever they can in order to remain afloat. Companies may decide that the cost of screening is too high and may look to alternative methods for vetting their candidates. We’ll explore a few of those options here, weigh the pros and cons, and then decide if any of these alternatives are viable options to replace a thorough background check. For the purpose of this article, the term “thorough background check” includes a county criminal records check and verification of any information provided by the applicant that pertains to the job responsibilities of the position they are applying for.

Employee Referrals

There was a recent blog posting about this very topic on EmployeeScreen University. The Head of HR for one of India’s top BPO companies stated that employee referrals are a great alternative for conducting background checks on potential employees. According to this individual, this method saves time, money, and promotes camaraderie among employees. While these factors are true to varying degrees, referrals are no substitute for verifying information through a proper background check. Relying on employee referrals instead of conducting background checks may get new employees in the door faster, have a lower initial cost (unless employees are provided compensation for the referral), and contribute to a friendly work environment because employees are, most likely, referring their friends. But should companies depend on employee referrals to replace a thorough screening procedure? Absolutely not! Here’s why:

Unless the employee and their friend have been inseparable for the entirety of their adult lives, they cannot be sure that their friend hasn’t gotten themselves into some trouble in the past. There may be criminal records the employee doesn’t know about that should disqualify the friend from employment with the company. The friend may have gotten fired from their last two jobs because of a bad attitude or lack of experience. They may not have the degree or licensure required to perform the type of work the job entails. In other words, the employee can’t know their friend’s entire life history. On the contrary, maybe they do and are just trying to help their friend out. As much as the employee has the company’s best interests at heart (or it is believed that they do), taking their word for it would be a mistake. Businesses may end up hiring a person that doesn’t belong in their organization.

Instant Nationwide Database Searches

If you were to type the phrase “instant background check” into Google, you would end up with thousands upon thousands of sites that offer instant nationwide database searches at a fraction of the cost of a background check provided by a pre-employment screening firm. These sites claim to cover the entire country. Sounds like a great deal right? Wrong!

If you are a faithful Verifier or EmployeeScreenIQ blog reader, this is a familiar subject. For the uninitiated, any best practice criminal check starts with a criminal search in each county courthouse in which the applicant has lived, worked, or attended school over the last 7 to 10 years. Most criminal cases are handled at the county level and the county courts contain the most accurate and up-to-date criminal record information. Not all counties report their information to any one particular database, if any. If they do report information, they may do so infrequently. So, if an applicant was convicted of theft three months ago but the county court he went to only sends information to a certain database once a year, there is a very good chance that this record will not be found. And if this person will be working with money or around expensive equipment, businesses cannot afford to not know about this record. So while this option seems like a good tool to use to run a comprehensive background check on an applicant, it really isn’t the best choice. Databases contain many holes and inaccuracies that would have to be verified at the county level anyway.

Applicant-Provided Background Checks

There are some companies that require their applicants to have background checks run on them and then provide the company with a copy of the information. This idea is definitely worth exploring. Not only does the company still get a background check on the individual but they also don’t have to absorb the cost of it. Where can this scenario go wrong? Let’s review:

How does the employer know that the background check this applicant supplied is a bona fide document? Documents are easily forged. We’ve seen quite a bit of that in our line of work, especially with college degrees. And if employers are not aware of what the document should look like from the agency the applicant obtained it from (police station, court, school, employer, etc.) and the applicant has some savvy Photoshop skills, many hiring managers may fall victim to this con. But, assuming they’ve got an ethical applicant who produces an actual document from the county court of the county they live in stating they have no criminal records, how do they know that is the only place the applicant lived? If the applicant lived in Kansas five years ago, it is doubtful they are going to make a trip back to obtain documentation from that court (especially if they have a record there they don’t want anyone to know about). This same scenario could be applied to education, employment, professional licenses, and so on. Any documentation submitted directly by job applicants should be verified with the institution that issued the document.

This should not suggest there is no place for the options described above in a best practice organization’s recruiting and hiring processes. These tools do provide some benefits. Employee referrals are a great way to find talent for an organization. National criminal database searches, while not reliable as a standalone option, are a very good complement to a county criminal record search to find records outside of the places an applicant lived, worked, or attended school. Having an applicant provide documentation of a court search or degree and then verifying those documents with the issuing agency is another way of determining how truthful the applicant is being. But none of these options should ever replace a thorough background check.

So, for companies looking to stop conducting thorough background checks and replace that process with one that is faster, cheaper, and less comprehensive, here’s some food for thought. The cost of conducting a thorough background check and finding the right person for the job the first time is cheaper than a.) having to replace an employee who has only been on the job for a few weeks because they had something in their past that disqualifies them from employment, b.) having to replace an employee who lacks the experience needed for the job which was not discovered until after they were hired, c.) a negligent hiring lawsuit. Considering recruiting, training, and salary paid to an employee that is a bad fit and/or the cost of a negligent hiring lawsuit, the cost of doing it right the first time is much cheaper in the long run.

Natalie Beck is Project Coordinator for Cleveland-based EmployeeScreen IQ, a best practices provider of pre-employment screening services throughout the U.S. and worldwide. Natalie can be reached at (800) 235-3954 ext. 459 or by email at