Ask Background-Screening Companies the Right Questions

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. June 14, 2022
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​There's a lot about criminal-background checks that some background-screening companies would rather employers not know. That's why HR professionals should always inquire about the quality of the data the companies are using.

Employers are "responsible for background-check results [from] a background-screening company," said Debra Keller, president and chief compliance officer of Total Insight Screening in the Evansville, Ind., area, during her concurrent session at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2022 on June 13 in New Orleans. "Know the questions to ask."

Megan Magaña, vice president of human resources for Union Square Credit Union in Wichita Falls, Texas, said she was attending the session because "you never know what you don't know." Magaña also was interested in tips on how to avoid incurring liability.

National Criminal Search

Debra KellerA comprehensive background check includes a national criminal search, Social Security number trace and county searches for seven years of address history.

There's no central repository for a national background check, Keller noted. Instead, background-check companies search administrative offices of the courts; state and national sex offender registries; city, county and state police departments; and county courthouses, among other sources.

There are about 650 million records that are worth searching, Keller said. If a background-screening firm says it's searching 2 billion records, that's a red flag. Don't mistake quantity for quality, she cautioned.

If the background-check firm isn't explaining how many files it is searching, it should be, she stated.

Some states have incomplete information. Louisiana and California only have parole records, for example.

"Not everyone is released on parole," Keller noted.

Data Aggregators

Background-screening firms buy national data from data aggregators, and there are about eight aggregators in the country. Background screeners often ask employers what filters they want on the background data, such as exact matches of first and last name and birth date. Keller recommended not searching for exact matches, particularly since some states do not provide birth dates.

Some data aggregators provide information on arrests, which employers shouldn't rely on. Otherwise, they risk a lawsuit from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, she noted.

Some county data is updated daily with some aggregators. Other data aggregators update their data only monthly. Employers should require their background-screening companies to provide their source list of data aggregators for national criminal data, so employers can see if data is gathered frequently or not, she noted.

"Bigger is not always better," Keller remarked.

County Searches

County searches are typically conducted by county research partners. Some researchers just rely on online information, which is not always up-to-date, while others go into the courthouses to get the latest records.

One exception is in Alabama, where the state ensures online information on criminal records is updated, Keller said.

In other instances, the county research partners are just "data dumpers," providing only mass data that may or may not have been obtained in person. "Who knows what's in there?" Keller noted.

Ask who the background screener's county research partner is and whether it's ever been sued for passing information that's incorrect, she recommended.

State and Federal Searches

Some states provide state searches, but employers should rely on these only when background screeners have searched all counties in the state.

If an employer is in a certain industry, like banking, or with the government, the employer may need a federal background search of all U.S. federal courts. This search is to identify crimes like drug convictions, kidnapping and money laundering.

Quality Assurance

Background-screening firms also should make sure the data they receive is about the individual for whom the employer requested a background check.

"Ask questions about quality assurance," Keller said.

In addition, she cautioned the audience not to run civil background checks. "Don't care about [job applicants'] personal business," she said. "Don't do it. It is trouble."

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