Best Practices in Employment Screening


After more than 10 years in the background screening industry, I have seen many different companies that conduct pre-employment screening in many different ways. A senior HR executive recently asked me, “Why can’t we just do our background screening in-house?” The answer is…you can, but once you gain an understanding of the complexity of data sources and compliance with myriad state and national privacy laws, the question becomes “why would you want to?” Simply put, when my tooth aches I don’t perform my own dental examination. I see a specialist.

The days of having a buddy at the police department or ex-FBI guy doing your background checks are behind us. The proliferation of technology over the past several years has eliminated many barriers to accessing personal and private information. Many governmental, public, and private agencies have enacted strict policies preventing access to personal confidential information without a permissible purpose and signed authorization. Not coincidentally, over the last several years we have seen a shift toward outsourcing this specialized function of the hiring process. The 2004 SHRM Human Resource Outsourcing Survey Report named background/ criminal background checks as the single most-outsourced function of HR departments, with 73% outsourcing at least partially and 49% of companies outsourcing this function completely.

I also frequently speak with other companies who exude positive and confident feelings when they talk about how they hire a company to do their pre-employment screening. My response is always, “are you doing it right?” Let’s throw away all the things you think about when you think about your pre-employment screening program, turnaround time, price, customer service, and bring it down to basics… are you doing it right or are you wasting your money. Does your program fit your current needs and do the services you order fit the responsibilities of the positions for which you are hiring? If the unthinkable happens in your workplace, will you be able to show that you exercised reasonable due diligence steps to avoid it?

Let’s examine criminal background checks. Do your budget constraints leave your criminal program full of holes? Spending a few more dollars on day one will save your company a fortune down the line. Cheap, instant, “nationwide” criminal history checks have created a perception that a thorough background check is unrealistically simple and should be accomplished for less than $20. A better perspective to consider is that a thorough criminal history check conducted the right way will take a couple of days and cost less than a day’s pay for the vast majority of positions.

An effective criminal program should always include physical research in each county in which the subject has lived, worked, or gone to school over the past seven to ten years. Frequent shortcuts include using national or statewide searches in lieu of county research, or checking only the current county of residence. Companies that decide to search fewer jurisdictions to save money are costing themselves more in the end. EmployeeScreenIQ has found that 40% of criminal hits found are found outside the current county of residence. Tying our hands by not allowing us to search additional jurisdictions may put your company at risk. If you hire 500 people per year and your criminal hit ratio is 10% doing only 1-2 counties, doing a complete search using a 7-10 year address history would identify 20 additional criminal records per year, at least 5 of which are probably serious.

A recent analysis conducted by EmployeeScreen IQ found 3-5% more hits by adding a nationwide criminal search on top of a comprehensive county-level search. Using the relatively inexpensive “national” or “statewide” searches in addition to county-level checks will allow you to cover more ground, but be aware of two important limitations: 1) statewide and nationwide databases cannot guarantee complete coverage of their stated jurisdictions; and 2) any “hits” from these databases must be authenticated at the county level to ensure FCRA compliance.

EmployeeScreen IQ has thousands of clients that have unique screening programs in place. Our clients that embrace best practices in pre-employment screening see a solid return on their investment. Their employees have a longer tenure, are more productive, and establish and maintain better relationships with customers and co-workers. Cutting corners in screening makes it virtually impossible to quantify return on investment because an inferior background check means “you don’t know what you don’t know” about that person when you hire them.

Cutting corners in screening makes it virtually impossible to quantify return on investment because an inferior background check means “you don’t know what you don’t know” about that person when you hire them.

I have been invited into many boardrooms by some of the largest companies in North America to make recommendations on how they can do a better job. The answer is very simple: you have the tools, you have the people and you have the experts, us. Do not cut corners; spend appropriately up front, you will see the cost benefit down the road.