The Anatomy of a Background Check
The rise of search engines has made it easy—maybe a little too easy—to believe that we can look up almost anything, near-instantly, with little more than a couple of keystrokes.
Heading to Europe? You can probably gather most of what you’ll need to know about flights, hotels, and art galleries without even speaking to a travel agent. If you’re interested in a particular news story, you can set an alert to be notified when an article is posted, rather than leafing through a handful newspapers and magazines.
A background check, on the other hand, is a different kind of search—one that involves searching through databases and a lot of hands-on work by human beings, in order to adhere to regulations and ensure the highest levels of accuracy.
Unless you’ve already conducted background checks as part of the hiring process before, your impression of how they work might have been unduly influenced by what you’ve seen on movies or TV. That said, the overall digitization of everyday life has meant a lot of online information can be manipulated or misused.
That makes it more important than ever before to understand the differences—and kind of effort required—for a thorough and fair background check. The process will obviously go a lot more smoothly if you’re not figuring out as you go along. Job candidates, meanwhile, are like anyone else, in that they may assume a background check will involve something out of science fiction. That can make the request, as well as the overall hiring experience, unnecessarily negative for an organization that wants to attract the best talent.
With that in mind, here’s how the steps in a background check break down, and how you can prepare for each of them:
Step 1: The Request
Unlike many online experiences, where you browse on a site and then seem to get followed around by ads or find yourself suddenly added to a company’s email marketing list, a background check is a permission-based process that begins by ensuring the person involved has affirmatively opted in. Launching a request via email, for example, will make it clear to the candidate what you’re asking for, and why.
Step 2: Disclosure and Authorization
Employees might be understandably worried or unsure about what a background check will involve, which is why, beyond the initial request, you can turn this process into a more positive experience by offering an informative and transparent look at the details as part of your disclosure notice.
Avoid one of the biggest areas of legal risk by offering a standalone disclosure that focuses only on the fact you’re going to be collecting information for the background check and their rights under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). In other words, no disclaimers, no liability waivers, or anything else.
Of course, there may be specific language required by law for those operating in or dealing with candidates in specific states. This can be incorporated into the authorization form that candidates read and acknowledge before anything else happens.
Step 3: The Identity Validation
The background check request will require candidates to submit personally identifiable information (PII) such a social security number (SSN). After electronically signing and completing the necessary authorization and disclosure forms, an SSN trace is initiated across credit bureaus, tax records or other kinds of directories.
The SSN trace will look for the candidate’s name, addresses, and any aliases they might have used, in everything from signing up for a magazine subscription to applying for a mortgage or car loan.
Naturally, people sometimes make mistakes, which is why this step should ensure the information provided can be validated. If the candidate didn’t enter details correctly, for instance, they could provide a piece of ID before the next step begins.
Step 4: The Discovery
As you might expect, a lot of the information collected as part of a national criminal search has been digitized in criminal or sex offender databases as well as global watchlists. There’s also the option to search for aliases of the candidate’s name, including short or longer forms of names such as “Johnny” for “John.”
Step 5: The Investigation
Unfortunately, the information in these sources isn’t always complete or up to date. That’s why they are treated as “pointers” for a deeper search. If something about a candidate having a criminal record arising from an incident in a particular city or state, for instance, the report would not only have to double-check to make sure it was the candidate in question (and not just someone with a similar name) but the details around the case, such as the disposition and whether the candidate was found guilty of the offense versus having the case dismissed. Beyond conducting quality assurance, this phase of the background check could involve searches at the federal or county level, using a court researcher who either makes use of public access terminals or deals directly with clerks.
Step 6: The Review And The Decision
The background check process isn’t truly complete—and ultimately doesn’t mean much—until it’s examined and used to determine whether or not to move forward with a hire. This means not just slamming the door on a candidate just because something pops up in the background check involving a criminal offense. Depending on the nature of the offense—for example, whether they were convicted or not, how long ago the incident took place, and whether or not the nature of the offense relates to the position you’re hiring for—you might still choose to move forward with an employment offer. Either way, an individualized assessment ensures you conduct the proper due diligence based on the report in compliance with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)’s guidelines. If you decide not to move forward, however, there’s still work to do. This includes sending a notice to the candidate, which gives them an opportunity to provide more information and to ensure they are treated fairly, before you make the final decision.
Interested in learning more about the background check process? Download our latest eBook, The Beginner’s Guide to Background Checks.