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Buyer beware! You get what you pay for. Garbage-in, Garbage-out. Overused clichés all, but nonetheless spot-on when describing the perplexing process of researching and selecting an employment screening vendor. There are literally thousands of vendors selling all kinds of products under the name “background check” in this fragmented industry, and there are thousands of contradictory messages. How do you determine what messages are valid and what priorities should apply to your business and employees?

The earliest civilizations realized that starting a fire requires heat, fuel, and air (oxygen); the absence of any one of the three means you needn’t bother, as fire will not be achieved. Similarly, it can be stated that there are three main elements necessary for an effective background screening program: quality, low price, and fast turnaround time. While we take the elements of fire for granted in modern society, many organizations embark on an employment screening program with a critical misunderstanding of how the elements of an effective screening program fit together. Let’s look at these elements from a logical perspective.

Economics 101

We’ll come back to quality in a minute. Price and time are somewhat narrowly defined variables and very simple: they can be low (good) or high (bad). If all else is perceived equal and you can choose between vendor A, who is cheaper, and vendor B, who is faster, some people will choose A and some people will choose B. If vendor C then introduces a product that is cheaper AND faster everyone will have a strong incentive to choose C. These are generally accepted tenets of a free market economy. The simplicity of price and time in the free market means the third and more complex element, quality, is frequently ignored.

Quality: The X-Factor

The most ambiguous and complicated of these decision elements is quality. One of the biggest misconceptions in the industry, and the equation that far too many vendors perpetuate, is that low price + fast turnaround time = quality. Quite the opposite is true. Quality is much more dynamic, and thus harder to comprehend in a value proposition against price and time. Quality in a background check must be discussed as a combination of, but not limited to, the following brief overview of vital attributes:

  • Reliability of Information – a screening vendor should adhere to industry standard research methods and provide practical oversight to achieve confidence that any criminal conviction reported is valid, compliant, and identified with the correct individual. Similarly, a “clean” record must come with reasonable confidence that there are indeed no existing reportable convictions in the areas where the individual has resided, worked, or attended school
  • Customer Service – a screening vendor should have customer service personnel available to answer questions within a reasonably urgent response time. Customer service representatives should be knowledgeable about the vendor’s practices, products, and methods, and should be able to explain the sometimes less-than-clear legal language or credit codes and abbreviations included in consumer reports
  • Legal Compliance – a screening vendor must make every effort to ensure all clients are in compliance with all applicable federal, state, and local laws governing access to and reporting of consumer information. The vendor should be sufficiently networked to be cognizant of pending legislation at all levels and have communication procedures in place to notify affected clients of changes that may impact their screening strategy or candidates
  • Privacy Protection/Data Security – a screening vendor must perform due diligence on each new client to mitigate the risk of identity theft and security breaches. Industry-mandated due diligence requires validating the existence and physical address of the client, and that reasonable security is present at the facility. Screening vendors must educate clients on the sensitivity of consumer information and the importance of keeping consumer data secure and confidential. Similarly, a screening vendor must have extensive internal technology, procedures and precautions in place to protect the privacy of the individuals on whom it produces consumer reports

If these quality attributes sound important, it should be obvious that quality is directly correlated with both price and turnaround time; that is to say, increasing quality requires commensurate increases in price and time. Once you begin to understand what quality in background screening means, you can then make a more educated decision as to what your organization’s value proposition for a background screening vendor should include.

Important note: if you are currently utilizing an instant nationwide database check as the sole criminal history inquiry on your applicants and employees, you are using a product that is cheap and fast. This should be raising a flag by now. More information on instant nationwide criminal database searches can be found here.

Beware the perfect storm

We’ve discussed the three elements required for fire and paraphrased them as the three elements necessary to constitute an effective background screening program. Yet, a low price and fast turnaround time are still too compelling to ignore for many organizations, and if this results in a false perception of quality, the screening vendor has little incentive to correct it. Choosing your screening vendor based solely on price and turnaround time creates a risk that is immeasurable, but regularly perceived to be small. To help understand this risk, consider another three elements. All three don’t happen in succession every time, but like the proverbial perfect storm, you probably don’t want to be around when they do:

  • Bad apple – the average job candidate that applies to the average company has not been convicted of a serious or violent crime. Most candidates will probably be considered “good apples” by your organization’s employment standards. There will also be candidates that walk through your door that have been convicted of one or more serious and/or violent crimes that would disqualify them according to your organization’s employment standards. These are the “bad apples”
  • Poor quality background check – the faster and cheaper the background check, the more likely it is that an existing criminal record will be missed. Conversely, you could be sued by a “good apple” candidate for disqualifying her/him from a position based on a bogus or expunged record attributed to that individual by a background check lacking sufficient oversight
  • Incident on the job – This is where the perfect storm occurs. A bad apple with a history of serious or violent convictions applies for a position with your company. Your instant, cheap background check fails to reveal this conviction history and you hire the bad apple. This employee commits theft or assaults a customer or co-worker. Suffice to say that plaintiff’s attorneys will spend significantly more time and money than you did looking for information that could be considered a predictor of the current incident. The consequences can be devastating

What constitutes reasonable quality?

Your selected screening vendor should be able to discuss the quality attributes described above in detail. Best practices in employment screening dictate criminal history research in each county jurisdiction and under all alias names revealed by a Social Security Number (SSN) Trace. It typically takes up to three business days to accomplish this and the cost will vary depending on how many places the candidate has lived or spent significant time. “Nationwide” databases should only be considered as a supplement to county criminal research to attempt to identify “vacation” criminal records. Depending on the position applied for and the level of responsibility or access the individual will have, additional screening services may be relevant.

Conclusion

With virtually any service product, organizations are naturally predisposed to be concerned with price and turnaround time. It is typically only when something bad happens that everyone is suddenly interested in the quality of your background screening program. If your organization believes background screening is worthwhile, do not leave quality out of your value proposition. A cheap, instant background check will provide little shelter in a perfect storm.

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 rthomson@employeescreen.com.

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