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Background checks: essential but tricky

Businesses of all sizes are moving beyond simple “reference checks” to more thorough “background checks.” And that's big business. Google those two words and there are 2,890,000 hits!

“Gone are the days of a simple reference check and a few phone calls to screen new employees,” writes Darrell Zahorsky, in the Small Business Information Guide for “Amid security concerns, corporate scandals, and workplace violence, pre-employment screening has been gaining ground.” Many companies are screening temporary employees, vendors and consultants, anyone who could put a business at risk.

ADP publishes an annual screening index that shows the areas in which background screening can help employers by highlighting where data inconsistencies can exist. These are the major findings of the checks performed:
• Reference Verifications – 41% revealed a difference in information between what the applicant provided and what the source reported. These include education, employment and credential verifications.
• Criminal Background Checks – 5% revealed a criminal record in the past seven years.
• Driving Records – 35% had one or more violations or convictions.
• Credit Reports – 43% showed a judgment, lien or bankruptcy or that the individual had been reported to a collection agency.
• Workers' Compensation Claim Records – 8% revealed an existing claim.
At the same time, a tight job market creates serious pressure to speed up the hiring process to avoid an applicant taking a job elsewhere. It's not surprising that a recent survey by the Society of Human Resource Management discovered that about half of the HR professionals who responded had used Google, Yahoo! or a similar search engine before making a job offer. According to an article in HR Magazine (October 2007), “About one in five of those HR professionals who conduct such searches said they have disqualified a candidate because of what they uncovered.”

While HR professionals may have the skill and experience in evaluating information, the popularization of search engine searches for information about people should be not necessarily taken as fact, since fake, falsified, inaccurate and incomplete information can be found there. It's also worth noting that Facebook and MySpace prohibit the use of information on their sites for other than personal purposes.

In addition, such searches may be in violation of the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, as well as state consumer protection laws, which require an individual's permission before a search can be conducted.

There is also the issue of “negligent hiring.” Failing to perform an adequate background check can result in legal action by putting the safety and welfare of your employees and clients at risk.

When utilizing background checks, be sure to comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act by making all applicants aware that there is a background checking policy and that a consent for a background check must be signed.