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HR Background Checks Do’s and Dont’s

Erin Donaghue - Top10 Writer
10 Employee Background Check Best Practices
Background checks are an essential part of the hiring and retention processes of many organizations. As an employer, they can help you form a full picture of potential hires and whether they’re a good fit for your company. But you need to proceed with caution when looking into the background of your potential or current employees.

Employee background checks are subject to many complicated and ever-evolving laws and procedures. This is to protect every individual’s right to privacy, which makes it vital that as an employer, you always use a professional background check service when looking for information.

Finding the right service is essential, but what’s also important is learning how to optimize your results. To help you get started, here are 10 dos and don’ts to keep in mind when researching the personal information of your potential and current employees.

1. Do Run a Wide Variety of Checks

A criminal record check is one of the most common background actions to take and is usually the first check that comes to mind when conducting a pre-employment screening. But you can run a wide range of searches across several categories using various tools. When combined, those will give you a clearer picture of the person you’re about to offer a job to.

Depending on the nature and duties of the position you’re recruiting for, consider running checks on the following:

  • Arrest history (as opposed to conviction-only records)

  • Traffic history

  • Previous employment records

  • Education

  • Drug tests

  • Sex offender status

  • International background check (if the applicant has lived and worked overseas)

  • Property ownership

  • Professional licenses

  • Credit history

  • Social media

A broader approach will give you more specific results when conducting background checks. It helps you develop a complete picture of a candidate and their suitability for a role. A comprehensive search can also help you confirm information you’ve found in one place and avoid unintentionally discriminating against a candidate.

2. Don’t Use the Box

Does your job application form include a checkbox asking candidates whether they’ve been convicted of a criminal offense? If so, it’s time to revise it.

An increasing number of states have introduced (or are considering introducing) “ban the box” laws. These are designed to prevent discrimination against candidates with a criminal record. “Ban the box” laws encourage employers to look at applicants' qualifications and experience instead of automatically ruling them out due to a previous criminal conviction.

When using a generic “one-size-fits-all” checkbox, employers fail to consider the circumstances of an offense, how long ago it happened, and how the applicant has developed personally and professionally since the crime was committed.

An applicant’s criminal background may be directly relevant to the hiring process for some positions, such as those working with children. Under “ban the box” laws, employers can only ask a candidate about their criminal history after an interview is complete or after a conditional offer of employment has been made.

3. Do Tell Applicants About the Background Check

Be fully transparent by giving candidates and employees notice that you plan to run background checks. This sets you up for a better relationship and gives them the chance to be honest about anything you may find.

Similarly, if your search turns up something negative, discuss it with the candidate. They deserve an opportunity to respond and shed more light on a situation that would otherwise lack context. They can also correct any errors, for example, if a search brings up results for someone else with the same name. Importantly, it stops you from making a hiring decision based on potentially incorrect or incomplete information.

Being transparent is more than just a best practice. In some situations or locations, it’s a legal requirement to notify candidates of pre-employment screening processes. For example, under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), you must get a candidate’s consent before accessing their credit report. Similarly, under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), you also need a candidate to agree to access confidential education records.

Using a third-party service to run background checks on candidates? Under the FCRA, you’re obligated to tell candidates and get their consent for the search. Additionally, under the same laws, you need to inform them if you’re turning them down for a job or firing them based on the results.

4. Don’t Break the Law

It’s your right as an employer to run background checks on potential hires, but you must also consider state and federal laws that limit that right. Remember that legislation changes frequently and depends on the industry or profession for which you’re recruiting.

It is always illegal to discriminate against someone based on protected characteristics like race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information. Make sure to keep that in mind when doing your research on potential hires or existing employees.

Since federal anti-discrimination laws are enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), you can turn to their website for information about conducting background checks. Still, consider seeking professional legal advice about your state’s personal investigation laws before getting started

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5. Don’t Ask For Someone’s Medical Records

Under federal law, employers can only make general inquiries about a candidate’s skills, experience, and ability to perform the role during the interview process. Employers aren’t permitted to ask an applicant any medical, genetic, or disability-related questions (including access to medical records) when considering whether or not to hire someone.

Once an employer makes a conditional offer of employment, they can ask medical or disability-related questions. They can even request a candidate to take a medical exam—as long as it relates to the role. Be sure to apply your requirements equally to all employees in the same position. Being consistent and fair in your approach can help you avoid potential discrimination claims.

6. Do Have a Background Check Policy

If you plan to use pre- or post-hire background checks, develop a policy for when and how you conduct those and the process you’ll follow if you receive unfavorable information.

Your background check policy should be a living document. This means you should review and update it regularly to make sure it complies with any changes to the law.

Documenting your background check process guarantees that everyone involved—from management and HR to candidates and employees—is aware of and understands it. When everyone is aligned, you can better protect against claims of unfairness or discrimination. Plus, you’ll increase your organization’s transparency.

7. Do Keep a Copy of Your Records

Like any human resources-related process, keeping a record of background checks you run on applicants and the results you get is a good idea. Those are particularly helpful if an applicant requests a copy, challenges an adverse action, or takes legal steps against your company for a decision based on a background check.

Keep a secure copy of your search results and any related reports for at least one year after obtaining them. That way, you’ll be ready to respond if anyone raises questions about a specific background check or related decision.

8. Don’t Discriminate

When designing and implementing your pre-employment screening policy, it’s essential to apply it consistently and equally to all applicants. Screening only one applicant or one type of will definitely raise a red flag with the EEOC.

That doesn’t mean you have to use the same screening process for each role. Background checks that are relevant to a specific role will (and should) vary based on the functions and level of responsibility related to that position. 

Make sure you’re always consistent with the checks you run and the processes you use for any specific role.

9. Do Use a Professional Background Check Company

Running background checks on potential hires can be complicated and time-consuming, especially when it comes to ensuring your screening process complies with state and federal laws.

Use a professional background check service, such as CheckPeople or TruthFinder, to properly perform your pre-employment screening. These companies hold professional licenses, giving them access to certain information you can’t access alone. They’re the best way to ensure a high-quality, broad, and accurate search that confirms you’re hiring the right person for the job.

Make sure to compare several providers before deciding which best suits your organization’s needs. The cost of background check services varies, as do the types of reports they offer.

10. Don’t Automatically Exclude Candidates

When running background checks, keep an open mind. If a search returns a negative result, that doesn’t mean you should instantly disqualify the applicant. Weigh this information against everything else you know about them. In the bigger picture, is the questionable information worth passing on a potentially strong hire?

Background checks aren’t all about uncovering dark secrets in someone’s past. They can also reveal positive information about candidates that doesn’t come up in their resumes or interviews.

Take a holistic view of the positive and negative information you get from a background check to avoid discriminating against an applicant or ruling out an excellent candidate. A single point in a candidate’s past probably won’t give you enough insight into who they are as a person now.

Screen with Care

These days, basic background checks are a common part of many organizations' hiring and retention processes. Along with resumes and interviews, they can help you get a better picture of each candidate when deciding who’s fit for a role. But proceed with caution, since laws and regulations are constantly changing.

The legal information and best practices above can help determine how and when to conduct a background check. Ultimately, a professional background check company can ensure that your pre-employment screening is legally compliant, thorough, and fair.

Erin Donaghue - Top10 Writer
Erin Donaghue is a criminal and social justice reporter, with an MA in journalism and over a decade of experience reporting and editing for various news outlets. In addition to Top10.com, Erin's work has been featured in publications such as the Washington Post, USA Today, CBSNews.com, and Huffington Post.

Note: Some or all background search services featured on this site are not subject to the Fair Credit Reporting Act, 15 USC 1681 et seq., ("FCRA") In order to make decisions about consumer credit, employment, insurance, tenant screening, or any other purpose that would require FCRA compliance, make sure you choose the appropriate service for you. Be advised that only consumer reporting agencies may provide consumer reports. This is applicable, but not limited to, a background search, credit background check, criminal background check, and/or driving record.