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Pre-Employment Screening Agenda: Forecast for Global Background Checks

HR professionals say the outlook remains foggy.

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0413cover.gifSuppose the recruiter and hiring manager at a London subsidiary of a U.S. accounting company want to conduct a pre-employment credit check on a candidate to head the French division in Paris. The candidate lives and works in France. Happily, the credit check is readily available. Unfortunately, conducting a credit check in this circumstance violates French employment law. Article L.1221-6 of the French Labour Code generally prohibits employers from reviewing an applicant's financial position and, for that matter, past convictions.

To get a rough idea of the complexity of rules, regulations, cultural norms and other challenges relating to international pre-employment background screening, multiply this example by the number of countries your company operates in. Next, multiply that figure by the number of languages and time zones in those countries. Finally, subtract any notion that mature economies pose less time-consuming and less frustrating screening obstacles: Australia, Germany, Japan and Spain are frequently cited as difficult countries for pre-employment screening. Not to be outdone, Brazil, China, India and other countries with rapidly developing economies pose their own impediments.

None of the HR professionals interviewed for this article say they would screen abroad without help from a vendor. "There's no way I could do international background screens outside of the U.S. on a regular basis," says Christine Becker, SPHR, human resources generalist with Torrance, Calif.-based Pelican Products Inc., a manufacturer of watertight protective cases and lights. "You need an extremely reputable vendor."

James Schultz, general manager of corporate and services HR for Chevron Corp., says the resources and costs involved in international background screening "make outsourcing this activity a strong consideration."

HR can, of course, conduct its own global pre-employment background checks—but most HR departments don't want to. Just ask Becker. Although she now uses Employment Background Investigations Inc. for domestic and global screens, she used to spend hours going back and forth with candidates in Australia about legible copies of both sides of their driver's licenses, among other information requests.

Becker and other HR professionals responsible for global screening say they would rather focus on:

  • Strengthening vendor selection.
  • Managing external vendors.
  • Setting appropriate expectations among hiring managers and other internal colleagues.

More Expensive, Longer

The components of global pre-employment checks are similar to those of domestic checks. HR professionals say they most frequently review a job finalist's identity, criminal background, employment history and education. Some check overseas applicants' credit or financial records, motor vehicle records, and professional licenses. However, execution of these investigations typically differs dramatically from what happens in the United States.

Netforce Global wholesales international background verifications by providing information to global background-screening vendors. Whereas a domestic criminal background check typically takes under 48 hours, the same check in another country can take two days to two weeks, depending on the locale, estimates Netforce's Chief Executive Officer Ed Etzel.

Verifying employment history usually takes a matter of days in the U.S., while overseas employment checks can take up to several weeks, Becker says.

Some U.S education checks can be conducted immediately online; overseas, these checks can take as long as a month. And more international universities, including many in India, now charge $15 to $45 or more to verify an education record.

It is difficult to put a price on an "average" international screening because the legwork, privacy regulations, duration and cost vary dramatically by country and even by applicant. Vendors' estimates range from $50 to $300 per global screen. Becker says the range more often varies from "$150 to $300 or more."

When in Rome or Japan

Even a partial list of global obstacles quickly becomes staggering in its length and variety.

In Japan, strict privacy laws greatly limit third parties' access to individual criminal information, Etzel points out. "Employers and schools in Japan can also be difficult to work with due to their interpretations of privacy laws," he adds.

In Germany, it is illegal for third parties to access criminal records from the Bundeszentralregister. Instead, notes Chief Knowledge Officer Robert Capwell of Employment Background Investigations, criminal searches must be initiated by applicants directly with the court.

In many European Union countries, a candidate's current employment contract may take up to three months to terminate. "So," Becker says, "once a new employee signs that contract, they are yours, and you better be sure that the background check was satisfactorily completed."


The above impediments relate to only one bucket of obstacles: rules. "Each country has different legal and regulatory processes governing what and how information can be legally obtained," explains Dan Shoemaker, vice president of international business for background screener HireRight Inc.

Global impediments fill at least two other buckets. First, there are logistics. Becker says the time difference between her company's California and Australia operations greatly slows document collection from applicants. This may sound minor, but Becker and other HR professionals say the travail adds up.

Second, there are cultural issues. Background checks are not standard in many countries. Some applicants and hiring managers may view the process as a hassle or personal affront. Asking personal questions may create cultural barriers, explains John Cavanaugh, director of global staffing operations for Honeywell in Morristown, N.J. Candidates and hiring managers with different cultural expectations "need to clearly understand why this is important to us and why we do background screening in all countries."

"You really have to take a cultural barometer reading to find out what is the cultural norm," adds William Dobbins, SPHR, staffing manager of global talent acquisition, diversity and HR planning for Amgen Inc., a biotechnology company based in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Picking a Partner

Cavanaugh says the market and standards for global background screeners are evolving but remain immature, posing problems for HR professionals who select and contract with inexperienced vendors.

Becker researched vendors on SHRM Online and with the National Association of Professional Background Screeners. Capwell and W. Barry Nixon, SPHR, chief operating officer of and publisher of the Background Screening Industry Buyers Guide, co-chair the NAPBS' international committee, which is developing an international background-check questionnaire to assist HR professionals in assessing providers and requesting proposals. The questionnaire should be published later this year.

Becker asked vendors whether they held the NAPBS accreditation. She also asked how the vendors obtain information and how they qualify subcontractors to gather information abroad. She looked for assurance that the vendors use high-quality assistance. Have "the background company do a couple of test runs," Becker advises. She conducted and paid for two background checks before signing a contract.

Netforce Global thoroughly vets subcontractors who track information, sometimes testing their research by sending them names of people with known criminal records.

Cavanaugh says Honeywell selected HireRight in large part because there was a cultural fit. "Find someone that's going to work well with you," he says. "For example, we're very deep into Six Sigma, quality control and things like that. If we had a supplier for whom these concepts were alien, we would be dragging them along."

Managing Expectations

That said, conducting global checks and managing vendors will never be easy, HR professionals agree.

Even with vendors' assistance, global screening requires ongoing management by HR professionals as well as managing the expectations of hiring managers, candidates and HR colleagues. "If we don't know for certain if and when the candidate's educational background will be verified, we can't start the visa paperwork," explains Jennifer Bennett, director of talent acquisition for health care company Novo Nordisk. "If we can't start the visa paperwork, relocation gets held up. The entire timeline can really get blown."

When "the issue must be kept confidential for legal purposes," Bennett continues, "you have to remain purposefully vague with the hiring manager—even though your desire is to be completely transparent."

At Honeywell, a member of Cavanaugh's team oversees pre-employment screening, including vendor management. "The vendor only collects the information," Cavanagh explains. "It is up to us to compare that information to our guidelines and make a hiring decision."

By actively partnering with vendors, Cavanaugh and Dobbins say they are able to identify and execute improvements in screening processes. For example, Dobbins says the software that HireRight provides helped his team see that education checks frequently were taking more than 20 days to complete in one country. Now, candidates furnish diplomas and other education records during the employment application process.

In short, global screening requires more effort and more patience than domestic screening—and plenty of legwork, even when tapping vendors' expertise.

The author is a business writer based in Austin, Texas, who covers human resource, finance and social marketing issues.


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