Practical Application of Screening Strategy


Should I run a background check on every applicant or just those who are offered a position? What should the background check consist of? If I wait two or three days for a proper background check I’ll lose this candidate; what can I do? Must I deny employment if I find criminal records or other adverse information?

These are some of the most common questions asked by prospective clients of Consumer Reporting Agencies. The answers can only be determined by examining the unique needs and cost/benefits of the alternatives within your own organization. Some questions you might consider: What layers of due diligence do you perform in your hiring process? How many people are involved in your hiring decisions? What is the value of their time? How much of the process is outsourced? How much access to sensitive assets, information, or financial resources does each employee have? How much damage could a disgruntled employee do? What level of risk management are you looking for in relation to available resources? The answers to these questions are different for every employer.

The background check is one piece of the puzzle

Because new-hires are granted access to clients, business assets, and other employees, most companies conduct several layers of due diligence prior to issuing an employment offer. These layers may include resume and/or application review, a single or several rounds of interviews, testing for specific skills, aptitudes, substance abuse, or psychological and personality profiles, and any number of other industry- and occupational-specific measuring tools. These are all designed to paint a detailed picture as to whether an individual represents a good fit for the position and the company. Most of these methods are qualitative in nature, based on information provided by the candidate. Hiring managers know that every applicant wants to portray her/himself as the best candidate for the position. This can be an incentive for applicants to take liberties with expressing their qualifications, experience, education, and history.

The background check should be considered the capstone of the hiring process. In other words, it should validate the accuracy of the different pieces of information provided by the candidate throughout the process. Most employers choose to interview only the best candidates, based on previous job experience or education credentials claimed by the applicant. Little white lies may not seem significant to a job candidate trying to facilitate a career advance. Claiming a degree that was not quite completed or embellishing work experience to make it appear they are more qualified for a position than in reality is more common than one might think. Sometimes the white lies aren’t so little. Similarly, habitual criminals often gravitate toward positions that will grant them access to the objects or people of their deviant desire, and perpetuate lies about their past to achieve their goal. Unfortunately, if you as the employer do nothing to validate the claims of your candidates, you are not managing risk. The risk to your employees, customers, and business assets is immeasurable.

Define the parameters

A relevant and reliable background check is not a commodity product – one size does not fit all. The vast majority of employers consider criminal history the most important starting point for a background check. Depending on the duties of the position, the level of the responsibility of the employee, and the characteristics of people and assets the employee will be exposed to, other background information should be researched as well. For example, positions requiring specific experience or education are the most ripe for manipulation. Previous employment and degrees earned should be verified. For employees that drive company vehicles or personal vehicles during the course of the workday, you need to ensure they have a valid license and safe driving history. If an employee will have control over finances, access to significant amounts of liquid assets or expensive inventory items, you should review a credit report to ensure the salary of the position will provide them with reasonable means to support their current lifestyle and obligations. Any employee that will have access to children, the elderly/disabled, residential spaces, hotel rooms, etc. should be run through a national sex offender registry in addition to the standard criminal search. There are also many industry-specific tools such as D.O.T. regulations for pilots and commercial truck drivers, OIG/Excluded Party searches for health care workers, and Homeland Security Databases for industries that require OFAC and Patriot Act compliance, to name a few.

Timing: when to initiate the background check

In most cases, it would be unrealistic (and expensive) to run a complete and thorough background check on every applicant as the first step in the hiring process. Most organizations prefer to wait until they are ready to extend an offer to the job candidate to run the background check. This may make the most sense for your organization, but be sure you consider all the factors.

While waiting until the last minute minimizes the overall number of background checks run, it doesn’t necessarily minimize the overall cost to the organization. It is typically mid- and upper-level managers that are involved in interviewing candidates and weighing hiring decisions. Both the dollar value and opportunity cost of their time is significant. Third-party and standardized testing tools can also represent a significant cost. By waiting until the last step to validate the information with a background check, individuals who misrepresent themselves have already cost your company a bundle of valuable time and money.

Another concern with running a comprehensive background check as the last step in the process is that it can encourage taking shortcuts. Many organizations feel that they will lose good candidates if they must wait 2-3 days for a proper background check. Some employers choose to cut corners and utilize instant background checks, or worse, forego screening altogether. Instant checks offer no oversight and no auditable paper trail to even estimate the reliability of the information.

The best practice recommendation for companies that feel they must make the offer immediately is to use a conditional offer letter, contingent upon satisfactory completion of the background check. This allows the employer to bring the individual onboard right away while the background information is properly validated. Don’t fear the scenario where you must dismiss an employee who has already begun working. If the proper questions have been asked of the candidate throughout the process, the background check is simply validating the answers to those questions. An employer should feel no remorse for having to dismiss a new employee after a few days because disqualifying discrepancies are identified in the background check. When done properly, the discrepancies will be validated and the applicant will have had ample opportunity to dispute any inaccuracies. A candidate that has provided misleading information or lied outright during the interview process has no basis to criticize this decision. Your organization will benefit by waiting a few days to conduct a proper, compliant background check.

The hybrid option

An alternative to consider for organizations that deal with a high volume of open positions and applications is to explore some inexpensive and quick background check tools as preliminary qualifiers before moving the candidates along to the more costly interview and testing phases. This is often called a progressive screening strategy. Consider including a question on your job application asking if the applicant has ever been convicted of a felony. You may then run a nationwide database criminal check as one of the first pieces of due diligence. It is important to note that a national criminal database should never be considered anything more than a cursory check. However, upon discovery of a criminal record through an inexpensive database check, the prospective employer has ample time to explore the issue with the candidate, or may choose to put the hiring process on hold for that individual until the criminal record is validated directly by the prosecuting jurisdiction (it is imperative that this step is performed since criminal database records often lack additional identifiers and may be based on a name match only). If the conviction is valid, and the candidate claimed no prior convictions, the hiring process is typically discontinued immediately for dishonesty. At the employer’s discretion, if the candidate has provided a satisfactory explanation for the situation, the employment relationship may still be pursued. A proper criminal check at the county level should always be performed before finalizing the employment relationship.

Adverse Action

When the background check reveals discrepancies between the facts found and the information provided by the candidate, you may consider taking adverse action. Taking adverse action typically means you have decided not to hire, or not to promote someone based on results of a background check performed by a Consumer Reporting Agency. When adverse action is taken, you should be able to show that those decisions were applied consistently and fairly when similar circumstances are present. To achieve consistency in applying adverse action, consider the following set of litmus tests in determining whether one or more discrepancies warrant disqualifying the individual from employment or promotion:

  • How serious is the discrepancy?
  • Does the candidate have a satisfactory and/or verifiable explanation?
  • How long ago did it happen?
  • Is it related to the duties of the job applied for?
  • Is it an isolated incident or is there a pattern of irresponsible or disqualifying behavior?

In any event, if adverse action is taken based on information in a consumer report, the employer must follow the adverse action procedure defined by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). The applicant must be sent a Pre-Adverse Notice letter informing them of their right to review and/or dispute any information in the report they believe is inaccurate. The Pre-Adverse Notice must also include a copy of the consumer report (background check) along with an FCRA publication entitled “A Summary of Your Rights Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act.” The Pre-Adverse Notice letter is then followed by the Adverse Action Letter, which informs the applicant that they are not being hired/promoted based on information from the consumer report.

Where the rubber meets the road: consistency is key

Having defined the substance of your screening strategy, the single most important aspect of implementing it is consistency. One of the primary purposes of the FCRA is to ensure that job candidates are treated objectively in the hiring process, based on individual merits and circumstances, and given reasonable opportunity to dispute and correct erroneous information at the public record source. In the unlikely event you are faced with negligent hiring litigation, you will face intense scrutiny as to how reliable your screening process is, and how consistently you’ve applied it. The same types of screening services should be run on all employees with similar duties or levels of responsibility.

Contact EmployeeScreen IQ to discuss the elements of a proper employment screening strategy. Reliable information that manages risk for your employees, customers, and business assets, not to mention protecting the privacy rights granted to your job applicants by the FCRA, not only improves your hiring decisions, it is good business.

Rob Thomson is Communications Manager and Senior Account Executive for Cleveland-based EmployeeScreen IQ, a best practices provider of pre-employment screening services throughout the U.S. and worldwide. Rob can be reached at (800) 235-3954 ext. 438 or EmployeeScreen IQ is a 2005 and 2006 Weatherhead 100 Award Winner.