Are We There Yet? How Long Should Quality Criminal Background Checks Take?

Nick Fishman

Quality Background checks

“Are we there yet?” That was my favorite question to fire off to my parents minutes after getting in the old Electra station wagon (remember the movie Vacation?) for a road trip. That question became a recurring theme in my early twenties with the advent of the dial up modem. And now in my adult life, that question has been replaced with, How long should it take to complete a criminal background check for employment?

For the purposes of this post, let’s just deal with county criminal records which are by far the best method for conducting criminal background checks.

For starters, let’s talk about the incorrect answer to the above question: Instant. As we’ve chronicled ad nauseum, an instant criminal background check is a recipe for disaster.

And the correct answer? My first response is that the average county criminal search takes about 24-36 hours to complete (this average includes clear records as well as those including convictions). But if that question is answered properly, it requires far more explanation.

If a background screening company is doing a good job, they ought to use the best possible resource for retrieving court data. In most cases, that means conducting a physical search of records at the courthouse. However, there are some instances where a direct web interface is the best option.

Here’s a breakdown of the various research options and how long they take to complete:

  • In-County Court Research- When physical research of court records is necessary, the average turnaround time is anywhere from 30-36 hours.  This is by far, the most common method for conducting a thorough criminal background check, so it has the biggest impact on the overall turnaround time.  When no records are found, turnaround times are considerably shorter.
  • Clerk Run Searches- Some courts throughout the country do not allow non-court personnel to conduct a criminal background check.  Instead the court researcher must rely upon a court clerk to perform the research on their behalf.  And unfortunately, court personnel don’t always make this research a priority.  For instance, it’s not uncommon throughout the state of New Hampshire or in Las Vegas, Nevada for searches without records to take more than a week to complete.  And fughetaboutit when a possible record is found.  That can sometimes take in excess of two weeks. Other areas that are well-known for clerk run searches are Phoenix, Arizona various counties throughout Northern California and the state of Michigan.
  • Direct Web Interface- When using a direct court interface, the results are available instantly.  However, don’t get too excited.  There are a couple important things to consider here.  1.) EmployeeScreenIQ has found that only approximately 25% of counties throughout the country offer a service that is as good as or better than physical research.  2.) These searches are great when no record is found but if there are records, there is usually a lot of raw data that needs to be sifted through before reporting.

Now that you know the various types of research, it is also important to understand how the presence of criminal records can impact turnaround time.  And again, if you are using a reputable background screening company, there is more work to do before simply reporting the presence of a conviction.

Here’s a breakdown of the activities that can impact turnaround time:

  • If the record is understandable and straight forward a reputable background screener will confirm that the personal identifiers (name and date of birth, address or social security number) match the subject of the search.  They will also ensure that the record is reportable under state and federal law.  The last thing you want is to make a hiring decision based on inaccurate or unreportable data.
  • If the record is unclear, a reputable background screening company will contact the court for additional information.  Sometimes, they can clear everything up in one quick phone call.  Don’t hold your breath though.  Many courts are understaffed these days and even the simplest question could take some time to resolve.  If court personnel can’t answer your question without further research it could take some time.  Once the information has been resolved, the company will perform the aforementioned confirmation steps.

Advice for HR Professionals:

  • Build time into your hiring process to conduct a thorough criminal background check.  Figure that your average background check will be completed in 2 to 4 days.
  • Don’t take shortcuts in the screening process.  If it sound too good to be true (i.e. instant background checks or guarantees on exactly how long a search will take), it most definitely is.
  • Identify a screening partner willing to update you when a search is delayed.  It’s a service business and you should have to chase them down.
  • Be transparent with your applicants.  Let them know how long a search usually takes and keep them posted.

Do you ever doubt the accuracy of your employment background checks?

Find out how to avoid a hiring horror story through HR’s Guide to Effective Evaluation of Background Screening Providers. Click here to download.

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Nick Fishman
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Nick Fishman

Nick Fishman is the co-founder of EmployeeScreenIQ, a leading, global employment background screening provider, and serves as the company’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer. He pioneered the creation of EmployeeScreen University, the #1 educational resource on employment background checks for human resources, security and risk management professionals. A recognized industry expert, Nick is a frequent author, presenter and contributor to the news media. Nick is also a licensed private investigator in the states of Ohio and Texas.
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