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Background Checks: What You Need to Know


With background screening now the norm, employers and employees should be aware of how checks are done and how to protect themselves

Most jobs nowadays, from cashier to a senior executive, require a background check. And more employers are vetting longtime employees, too. These investigations are done increasingly by outside screening companies. Here's some things applicants and employers need to know:

Job Applicants

Check prior background reports. Under federal law, you are entitled to a copy of any background report that had been done on you, for a minimal fee of $10 or less. In three states, California, Minnesota, and Oklahoma, they're free. You need to know which screening firm out of the nearly 2,000 nationwide did the report. A previous employer can tell you and then contact the screening company directly. ChoicePoint (CPS), a big screening firm to large employers, has a Web site for consumer requests, choicetrust.com. Other major background companies include US Investigation Services, First Advantage, and Kroll.

Know who's checking your past. Examine the consent form that gives an employer permission to conduct a background check. It should list the screening firm doing the work and the scope of the investigation, whether that includes criminal records, credit history, driving record, or reference interviews.

Act fast if something's wrong. If you're rejected for a job based on your background report, an employer must tell you this and hand over a copy of the full report. Federal regulators have said employers have to wait only five business days before hiring another applicant while you dispute information in your background report. Contact the screening firm immediately and demand, in writing and by phone, a reinvestigation.

Employers

Know what you're getting from a background check. The quality and depth of background investigations vary widely in an industry where many companies are startups offering low prices to win business. Be wary of Web sites offering instant checks. They may not be familiar with compliance and federal law. Some background companies search for criminal history in only one or two counties where an applicant has lived primarily, possibly missing information elsewhere.

There's no national database of all criminal records. Despite some marketing claims to the contrary, no master file exists of all state and federal criminal arrests and convictions. Searching criminal records remains a fragmented task across 50 states and thousands of courthouses. Diligent searches require screening firms to send workers to pull court files by hand for accuracy.

Know how reference checks are done. Some screening firms grant anonymity to friends and former bosses and co-workers in exchange for unvarnished opinions about applicants. Others identify all sources to guard against unsubstantiated gossip and innuendo. Ask how a screening firm checks references and whether you can provide specific questions to be asked that pertain to the position being filled.

Terhune is a senior writer for BusinessWeek based in Florida.

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