Background Checks Scrutinized by NBC’s Today Show
November 9, 2012
This morning, the Today Show ran an investigative piece criticizing background screening companies. The story gave several examples of egregious mistakes made by some well-known background screening companies. I knew that the story was coming, and I fully anticipated a one-sided hatchet job portraying background screening companies in the worst possible light. Jeff Rossen’s predictably sensational style did not disappoint. Video: Rossen Reports
The examples in the story were the worst—all chosen to show how background screening companies get it wrong. Inaccuracies in reports happen, and they occur at the expense of hardworking, honest and innocent job seekers. Catherine Taylor, featured in the story, is the perfect victim—a seemingly kind, honest, and hardworking stay at home mom who missed out on a job opportunity with the Red Cross because of a sloppy error in an employment background check that mistakenly identified her as a repeat felony drug offender. The drug offender had the same name and DOB, but the similarities ended there.
Rossen went on to give other examples of equally appalling instances where screening companies have reported inaccurate information resulting in lost job opportunities. Mismatched names, the wrong states of residence, or missed identifiers were all given as examples of inaccuracies. What happened to Taylor and the others is wrong. Period.
I understand that no process is perfect, and every background screening company makes the occasional mistake. Moreover, the background screening companies named in the story are run and managed by friends and colleagues who I know and respect. So as much as it pains me to admit, I have to give Rossen credit. The story made some very good points. It was, for the most part, fair and accurate. When background companies mess up, people lose jobs. It really is that simple.
As Rossen pointed out, the FCRA does provide a dispute process for candidates who find inaccuracies in reports, but by the time that process has been completed, it is often too late. Companies are not required to keep jobs open for the full 30 days that are allocated for dispute resolution. While our disputes are usually cleared up within a few days, even a few days can be too long for some employers to wait.
Rossen cited the FCRA’s requirement for “maximum possible accuracy.” Background screening companies are required to meet that standard, but the examples in the story showed that companies are not hitting the mark. When Rossen asked an attorney why screening companies don’t fix the problems, he responded that providing accurate information requires investment in people and processes that cut into profits. Again, he’s right. It’s true. Delivering a higher level of accuracy costs money and takes additional time and people.
It is unfortunate that people will walk away from an early morning news show with such a poor impression of background screening companies, and the process in general. The story that wasn’t told was that many companies do spend the time and money to get it right. The NAPBS spokesperson was misquoted on the statistic given for disputes and inaccuracies. Based on our own internal statistics and information shared by my colleagues at other companies, accuracy rates are much higher that portrayed in the story.
Our dispute rate for inaccuracies at EmployeeScreenIQ is .017 percent. That means that only one (1) out of every 6,000 county criminal record reports is disputed. With that said, most of those disputes result in no change—only one (1) report for every 5,000 job applicants is amended because of an EmployeeScreenIQ error. I share these numbers not to say we’re better, but because it is true. It is important to put it out there to let people know that lots of companies get it right. And the easiest way to get it right is to make sure the report is accurate in the first place.
Our “No Shortcuts” philosophy boils down to this: before reporting criminal records, our Public Records department confirms that the information that we’ve found actually belongs to the applicant. We confirm that the record is legally reportable. The same holds true for our methods for conducting employment and education verifications. Our research team reviews each response for depth of detail and to ensure there isn’t any misleading or inconclusive information. We’re all for streamlining the process and reducing turnaround time, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of a quality product or a job applicant’s future.
So what now? As I have said before, I firmly believe that if you are running or managing a business, doing a criminal background check is a must. It’s a sound and best practice and it is probably negligent not to do so. Even Jeff Rossen conceded that NBC routinely conducts background checks on employees, as they well should.
At the risk of being repetitive, I am re-posting some of my thoughts on the subject of accuracy that I shared last month, when another background screening company came under the scrutiny of the FTC for inaccuracies. My advice was directed at employers who are looking for the right partner to conduct background checks. We all want the same result—to get the right people in the right jobs. Follow these tips, and your company is less likely to be featured on Jeff Rossen’s next expose.
1. Look for NAPBS accreditation: This standard, established a couple of years ago by the National Association of Professional Background Screeners, identifies that a background screening firm is committed to best practices, subjects itself to on-site audits, and has submitted to ongoing monitoring and approval of policies and procedures by an accrediting board.
2. Ask your provider about accuracy: The FCRA requires “reasonable procedures” to ensure “maximum possible accuracy.” Ask your background company about this requirement. Ask to see their process. How do they handle common names? How do they match identifiers? They should know what you’re talking about. If they don’t, start looking for a replacement.
3. Does your background firm use databases? Databases are great. They are highly effective when used properly. So if they use them, how do they confirm that the information is up-to-date? A database is NEVER completely up-to-date. Even the FBI and state police databases are full of holes and gaps. By definition, a database is stored information that does not keep up with the real-time activity of a court. Unless a provider is confirming with an on-site or real-time court level check, the information may not be accurate.
4. What about expungements? If information is not verified at the county court level, you run the risk of making a decision based on an expunged or sealed records.
5. Does your provider publish duplicate offenses? If a case is reported in multiple places, the right thing to do is only report it once. Courts and regulators agree–reporting duplicates can make an applicant look worse that they really are.
6. Does your provider send required notifications to consumers when public record information cannot be verified? This is one area where the FTC and courts are coming down hard. The process of notification when records are not confirmed can be fraught with problems, and can be avoided altogether if the information is been verified at the source before being reported. Ask your provider about their policy on this issue.
7. How does your provider deal with consumer inquiries? Ask for a copy of their dispute resolution policy. Take it to your attorney to review. The law says disputes must be responded to within 5 days, resolved within 30 days, and the background screening company must provide a copy of the report upon request. If it seems like a background screening company is making job applicants jump through hoops when they have a question about the report, beware. The law exists to help consumers and job seekers, and the background screening companies are a critical part of that process.
The final word: If any of my colleagues at other background screening companies and with NAPBS have statistics or information to share, I encourage you to post them here, and join in the conversation. I would like to hear from you, as would clients and employers who deserve to hear the other side of the story.
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