Close Doesn’t Count


If you’ve ever been to a county fair, carnival, or amusement park, chances are you’ve witnessed the work of the Amazing Age/Weight Guesser. The (usually) adolescent guesser often seems to have a supernatural gift for forecasting body mass and aging on the spot. House rules allow the guesser to come within a few pounds or years of the correct number, so they only have to come close. Similarly, the game of horseshoes has long been cliché for awarding points to participants who come close, but fail to precisely hit the target. In both instances, the ability to clearly see the subject or target allows for a calculated effort and can result in success, even if not exactly spot-on!

In employment screening, there are no such rewards for gambling on sensory perception, or for coming close, but not hitting your target. To the contrary, the penalties for missing the mark, even slightly, can be catastrophic. As an employer, you must use a reliable process to determine whether a job candidate has a track record of past indiscretions that should disqualify that individual from being exposed to your customers, employees, and business assets. The industry standard best practice involves researching court records at the county level, corresponding with the locales where your candidate has lived, worked, or attended school over the past 7 years.

Line of Sight

The detrimental alternative is cheap, instant background checks invariably using nationwide criminal databases. Database research is analogous to blindfolding the age/weight guesser or the horseshoe thrower, and expecting the blindfold to have no effect on their performance. There simply is no comprehensive database in existence that taps into every court jurisdiction or law enforcement agency across the country. This means that the “guesser” (the database) may contain a seemingly large amount of random information, but it is not comprehensive or auditable as a nationwide tool. Unlike the carnival guessing game, there is no immediate reconciliation (i.e. stepping on the scale or producing a driver’s license) that validates the results of a database criminal check.

Commercial database vendors (guessers) purchase information from random sources across the country. The problem is that they cannot force any given jurisdiction to provide information or updates, leaving significant coverage gaps and stale information due to lack of updates. There are entire states (including California) that do not provide county-level criminal records to databases. Using the horseshoe metaphor you could say you’re tossing a lot more horseshoes by checking millions of records, but no one can say whether you’re tossing them in the right direction or hitting any of the targets (counties your applicant has lived). This makes the vast majority, if not all, of these tosses irrelevant. Research has shown that the best commercially available national criminal databases cover less than 50% of county court jurisdictions nationwide.

Know What You Don’t Know

Simply stated, national criminal database checks significantly increase the probability of missed criminal records, and you will have no way of knowing whether a candidate with no criminal database “hits” truly is a non-offender. It is also more likely that you’ll violate the FCRA or state privacy laws by using ineligible or illegally obtained information against a candidate (or the wrong person) without even knowing it. The worst way to find out you are using poor information is under the scrutiny of a lawsuit for negligent or discriminatory hiring practices.

Criminal records should be researched at the county level, corresponding with your candidate’s address history as noted above. County court systems are the primary source of research for criminal records. If the record exists, it will be found in the county court; if it is subsequently updated or expunged, the county record will always reflect the current state.


In this game, close doesn’t count. At the fair, a bad guess typically costs management a stuffed animal or other inexpensive trinket. A bad horseshoe toss could mean losing the game, but no other lasting implications other than bragging rights. Making a bad guess in hiring can cost your company significantly more. Contact BIS for more information on tailoring a reliable and legally compliant screening program to the specific needs of your company.

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 IQis a 2005 and 2006 Weatherhead 100 Award Winner.*