How Much Should a Reliable Background Check Cost?


What is a reasonable budget for a background check? Many companies approach this question from a logical purchasing perspective: find the cheapest product available that is sufficiently user-friendly. If your employees like it and your accountants don’t hate it, you have done well.

However, there are some important considerations that are not so obvious when shopping for the best value. Legal compliance and risk management can easily be overlooked in this decision process. If price is your only decision criteria, understand that it costs a little more to get reliable information; don’t put yourself or your company in a position to be second-guessed in the future, especially by a judge or jury.

Easy street

To cite the obvious example, it is easy to go online and sign your company up to run instant national criminal database checks. The database professes to contain millions of criminal records, it says it is a “national” check, the website interface is effortless, the results flash across the screen virtually instantaneously, and the cost is typically $10-20 or less. Many of these companies will even give you a “pass/fail” or “red light/green light” notification as to whether you should hire the individual. Why in the world would any company consider spending $30, $50, $75, or $100+ on a background check when a service like this is available?

The answer is risk management. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) is a federal law whose purpose is to ensure that job applicants are treated fairly and objectively when employers hire screening companies to dig up information upon which they will base their employment decision. Bargain basement background checks do not measure up to FCRA criteria.

What, me worry?

Hopefully, your company will not be sued anytime soon for negligent hiring, based on an employee’s criminal act. However, if this situation arises, your screening process will come under intense scrutiny to determine if the individual in question had a checkered past that might have predicted the criminal behavior. The legal precedent is that if the employer “could have known”, then that employer “should have known” about that person’s propensity for criminal behavior.

A $10 instant background check does not provide you with reasonable confidence that you will weed out criminals on a consistent basis. There are hundreds of counties across the country that do not share criminal records with any national database. Those that do share records are extremely inconsistent in whether or how often they update the databases. There is no audit trail to determine the reliability of information. Criminal records will be missed.

Additionally, many counties that share criminal records have redacted any personal identifiers (DOB, SSN, etc.) from those records because of the prevalence of identity theft. This means that you could also invite litigation by disqualifying applicants based on criminal records that are matched only by a common name.

On the money

Reliable information requires checking criminal records at the county level. To maximize the probability that existing criminal records will be found, each county of residence, work, or school over the past 7 years should be checked, including any alias names used by the individual (courts file criminal records by name; they do not have the methodology or the resources to update criminal records every time someone gets married or changes their name). A “national” database can be useful as a supplement to the county check but doesn’t guarantee additional records will be found. Any criminal records that are found in a database must be validated by the local prosecuting jurisdiction (county) to ensure they are accurate and current for FCRA compliance.

Bottom line – what should I be prepared to spend?

The cost of a 7 year county criminal check is variable, because you can’t predict how many times each job candidate has moved or how many names they’ve used until the Social Security Number Trace is run. Each company’s average cost is variable as well because demographics of employees vary across companies and industries. To benchmark, a good rule of thumb is that a comprehensive, reliable background check can be performed in most cases for less than a day’s pay of the position being hired, and in most cases far less. Investing a little more up front in this important due diligence process can save you from catastrophic consequences down the road.

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

For more information on the content provided in this article and, or the organizations referenced, please use the following helpful links.

The Employment Screening Value Proposition: A Primer
Practical Application of a Cost-Effective Employment Screening Strategy