7 HR Questions (and Answers) About Employment Screening

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer June 26, 2018
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​Employment background checks are an essential step in the candidate selection process—they identify risks and validate claims made by prospective new hires. But background screening can seem daunting to employers new to the process and mysterious even to regular users.

Here are seven frequently asked questions about employment screening, according to industry experts.

[SHRM members-only online discussion platform: SHRM Connect]

How long does the typical background check take?

The industry standard for a typical background check is 24-72 hours, said Montserrat Miller, a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Arnall Golden Gregory and co-chair of the firm's Background Screening Industry Group.

Why do some background checks take longer?

How long the process takes depends on what the employer wants to accomplish, the depth of the check and its geographical scope, said Catherine Aldrich, vice president of operations at HireRight, a global background screening company headquartered in Irvine, Calif. "The turnaround time is often predicated on where the candidate has lived, worked or gone to school in the past, which could include international locations," she said. "It also comes down to what is found. Sometimes, we need additional research or extra court documents to validate our findings. Any one of these factors, or a combination, could hold things up."

For example, a client could be hiring someone in New York who previously lived in the U.K. and went to school in India, Aldrich said. "India requires certain documentation to be submitted to the school for validation and oftentimes we have to drop it off and return to pick it up several days later. And criminal checks in the U.K. allow government agencies a turnaround time of up to 15 business days."

She added that more robust screening is often required for executives and for certain regulated industries. And unforeseen complications could arise, such as trying to validate past employment at companies that have since gone out of business.

"We certainly understand that speed-of-hire is paramount to getting a new person in the door, but making sure that the results are accurate must take precedence over speed," Aldrich said.  

Which laws regulate the employment screening process?

Miller said that employers will need to understand and comply with the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's 2012 enforcement guidance on the use of arrest and conviction records in employment decisions, state consumer reporting laws, and state and local ban-the-box ordinances.

Are commercial database searches for criminal records reliable?

For anything other than generating leads, the answer is no, according to experts. "If your vendor is only doing a database search, pay a little extra to have them source the information with the county courthouse, to make sure the person is the person you're looking for," Miller said. Not doing so could get the company in a lot of trouble when an adverse action is taken based on inaccurate information. The FCRA requires screening firms to provide up-to-date and accurate reports.

"National criminal databases are incomplete and often inaccurate," said Michael Gaul, an employment screening expert and executive vice president for Lowers Risk Group, an enterprise risk management firm in Purcellville, Va. "National criminal database checks can help you pinpoint potential red flags in a specific jurisdiction, so you can go straight to that first, but employers should never rely solely on these findings," he said.

Aldrich explained that, because commercial databases may have outdated information, findings must be validated before they can be reported, meaning going to the original source—the records stored in over 3,000 counties across the country. "Some of them are automated and electronic, while others still use paper files and require walk-ins to drop a request off," she said.

Searching for criminal records abroad adds another layer of difficulty. "Outside the U.S., each country has a different process and criminal records are not always available in every country."

How long must an employer retain background check reports?

The FCRA does not require employers to retain background check reports for any specific amount of time, but there are other factors to consider, including contractual agreements with background screening vendors and federal and state statutes of limitations, Miller said.

"An applicant, employee or regulatory agency can sue you for an FCRA violation related to the background check report for up to five years from the date of the violation, and a plaintiff who was injured or harmed by [one of your employees] can typically sue you for up to two years from the date of injury or harm," Gaul explained. "Many employers retain hired employees' background check reports for three years from the date of employment termination, and nonhired applicants' background check reports for six years from the date of the no-hire decision."

Why can't I just look up candidates' backgrounds online?

There are a variety of reasons why HR and hiring managers should not perform online or social media candidate screens, Aldrich said. The biggest one is that by searching online, "you may come across information that shouldn't be considered as part of the hiring selection process," she said. Employers need to be especially aware of privacy and discrimination issues that could arise when looking at candidates' social media and online profiles. Race, color, national origin, religion, gender, disability, age and citizenship status are all protected characteristics. If a candidate feels he or she was not hired because of one of these traits, that person might sue for discrimination.

Aldrich explained that it's also very challenging to know if the information online is valid or if the information pertains to the candidate rather than someone else. "Employers should leave screening to screening professionals," she said.

How do I find an employment screening vendor?

HR professionals are encouraged to use resources such as the Society for Human Resource Management Guide to Background Screening Systems, the list of accredited screening vendors on the National Association of Professional Background Screeners website or the resources at preemploymentdirectory.com.

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