Elements of a Proper Employment-Related Background Check

HR & Safety

The following article first appeared on HR Risk Mitigation’s Insights. It is reposted here with permission. 

There are many misconceptions about what is possible when conducting an employment-related background check on an individual. 

This article examines many of those misconceptions and offers a realistic view of what is, and is not, possible. 

It also provides criteria when evaluating background checks and the firms providing them. 

More Than Just Criminal Records 

Many people believe a background check consists solely of a criminal record search, or a Social Security number verification, or perhaps those items and an internet search. 

In fact, a proper background check includes numerous sources, including but not limited to: criminal and sex offender records, bankruptcy filings, liens and judgments, civil litigation, regulatory filings, corporate records, professional licenses, asset ownership, media (news articles, internet content, social media), voting history and political contributions, education and employment verification, personal and professional references, and other sources. 

In addition, background checks can also include driving history records and consumer credit reports, along with drug testing results depending on the exact circumstances (and under applicable law with permissible purposes and the individual’s consent). 

And although all record sources cannot be searched in every case, attempting to limit the research to just a few sources (mostly to save money) can often leave critical information undiscovered. 

Background Checks Are Not DIY 

Federal, state, and local laws make conducting employment related background checks onerous. 

What is permissible in one jurisdiction may be illegal in another.

Unless your company has a team of experienced HR professionals (including employment lawyers) familiar with the intricacies of employment related background checks, and in various jurisdictions, it is often best to rely on a professional screening firm specializing in such work. 

Unless your company has a team of experienced HR professionals, it is often best to rely on a professional screening firm.

But choosing just any provider is no simple task either.

Some investigative firms outsource their U.S.-based work to India, China, or other overseas locales—saving costs, but losing local perspective and quality control. 

Similarly, there are U.S.-based “investigative” firms that rely on computer algorithms and “screen scraping” software to conduct background checks. 

These firms are usually established by individuals with computer engineering or software development skills—not investigative expertise.

Research and Analysis Takes Time

It takes time to identify a person fully and properly, or verify provided information.  

Proper research will identify possible alternative names, such as a maiden name, or other name variations—perhaps which the person may not have disclosed or they try to conceal.  

It takes time to determine the places in which a person has lived and/or worked, plus the surrounding jurisdictions.  

It takes time to determine the places in which a person has lived and/or worked, plus the surrounding jurisdictions.  

Yes, certain databases make searching multiple places and record sources relatively easy, but not for records the databases do not capture or places that do not make records available to databases.

And finding a record is only the beginning.  

Carefully reviewing and analyzing the record is also a critical component to sound research. 

Background check companies offering “instant” reports or full reports in “24 hours” cannot, in most cases, perform proper research. 

Not Everything Is on the Internet

Beyond the legal complexities of conducting employment related background checks (especially “inhouse”), many companies or individuals think because they have access to databases, such as LexisNexis, or research tools like Google, they can find all the information that exists on a person.  

However, many record sources—such as criminal records, liens, judgments, and the like—are not available electronically.  

While the amount and availability of information is greater than ever, another prevalent misconception is “everything” is available on the internet.  

To conduct a full and comprehensive background check, multiple sources and multiple methods must be utilized.  

According to a leading resource of online public records, “More than 25% of state and county government agencies do not provide public records online. Less than 50% of the courts provide online/onsite search equivalency to docket lookups.”  

To conduct a full and comprehensive background check, multiple sources and multiple methods must be utilized.  

Depending on the jurisdiction, it may be necessary to search for records manually by hand at the local level.  

For example, although some states may offer a statewide criminal record search, and some even make it accessible online, not all of the state’s counties may participate and contribute their records so manual searches may still be required. 

Too Much Information

With the explosion of electronic and online databases, as well as the Internet and social networking websites, developing information on someone is usually not the problem.  

The difficulty often lies in determining the reliability and accuracy of the information.  

For example, if a person has a common name, or even a modest profile, there may be dozens or hundreds of records (e.g., lawsuits, corporate records, regulatory filings, media reports, and the like).  

The ability to quickly sift through them and determine if the information pertains to the subject (and not a name match), as well as the veracity of the source and the relevance of the information, is vital. 

You Get What You Pay for

As Warren Buffet says, “Price is what you pay, value is what you get.”  

Many places claim their databases hold millions of records and they offer background checks for as low as $19.99 or even $0.25 a search.  

But if the sources and records are not germane to your subject, the results are worthless.  

“Price is what you pay, value is what you get.” 

Warren Buffet

To put it another way, would you pay even a penny to search all the criminal records available on Mars? 

And if the searches return hundreds or thousands of name match records, too many to reasonably sort through, again the results are meaningless.  

A proper background check in the U.S. will likely cost several hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on the exact circumstances, plus related expenses. 

Selection Criteria

Conducting employment-related background checks requires specialized knowledge and skills.  

There are numerous legal pitfalls in conducting employment-related background checks and often more so if the check is conducted in-house by the potential employer.  

Selecting a bona fide firm with a professional and highly trained research staff is key because conducting domestic research from abroad may save money but quality will suffer.  

A proper background check should include multiple record sources, not just a criminal record search.  

A proper background check should include multiple record sources, not just a criminal record search.  

Similarly, there should be multiple means of searching such as electronic databases, online searches, and manual searches as appropriate.  

Searching for and finding records is only the start, thorough review and analysis of the information is essential.  

Artificial intelligence or other technological solutions are not yet able to distinguish between name match records and ones that actually pertain to the subject of the research.  

Finally, a proper background check is much like any other important service: It can be quick, inexpensive, or good—but you can only choose two. 

About the author: Michael Levien is the co-founder of LexPro research and HR Risk Mitigation LLC. Levien has worked as a private investigator since 1992, managing numerous national and international cases.


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