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Perform Effective Background Checks Before Hiring

Perform Effective Background Checks Before Hiring

You've interviewed a job candidate, talked it over with your team, and decided to make an offer. Great – but you're not done yet. You can't judge every book by its cover – or every potential employee by his or her interview. Checking backgrounds and references can help you avoid making a hiring mistake that could jeopardize your company - especially since experts estimate that between one-quarter and one-half of resumes and applications contain some amount of false information.

First things first: Always perform background checks after you make a job offer – but make the offer contingent upon the applicant successfully passing the background check. Conducting checks after the offer has been extended helps you avoid discrimination charges. Plus, why spend unnecessary time checking background or references if you don't end up selecting the candidate for your opening?

Then, establish standards and policies for your background checks. For example, you may decide not to hire anyone who has been convicted of a felony. If the position includes driving company vehicles, you may decide you will not hire anyone who has more than one moving violation on their driving record for the previous year. Create standards applicable to the job, and only consider job-related information. If the prospective employee will never drive company vehicles, their driving record is irrelevant to the position. If the prospective employee will handle cash, checks, or credit card transactions, checking for incidents of theft or embezzlement makes perfect sense and is directly applicable to the job.

What can you verify? Depending on the nature of the job:

  • Social Security number
  • Work history
  • Education and certifications
  • Professional references
  • Personal references
  • Military records (rank, salary, awards, assignments)
  • Driving record
  • Criminal history
  • Credit history

Again, the inquiries you make should be related to the position. Running a credit report for a shop floor employee makes little sense and will be tough to justify; verifying degrees and other certifications for an accounting position can make perfect sense.

What can you not attempt to verify, especially without permission?

  • School records are confidential but can be accessed with the permission of the applicant.
  • Some states limit requests for information about arrests or convictions to a specific time window; say five years. You can ask about convictions, for example, "... within the past five years," but no farther back.
  • Medical records are confidential, and you are not allowed to make a hiring decision based on disability. You can ask about the applicant's ability to perform the job in question (but you may be required to make reasonable accommodations to ensure an otherwise qualified candidate can perform the job).

To make the process easier, get complete information up-front: Full name, Social Security number, address(es), employment history, driver's license number (if applicable), certifications, etc. Have the employee sign a release allowing you to verify the information they supply.

What happens if the employee won't sign the release? Take steps ahead of time to protect yourself. First, create a written policy describing the checks you will perform. Also include in your policy a provision stating you will not hire individuals who do not consent to applicable background checks. Then, if the employee will not sign, you can rescind the job offer based on their failure to grant permission – and will not have discriminated against that employee, since you simply followed an established policy.

Then verify the information provided. Some will be clear-cut: An employee either does or does not have a college degree, specific certifications, a suitable driving record, a clean criminal history, etc. In other cases your background check will be more subjective, especially when you check professional references. To make that process more effective:

  • Try to speak to the prospective employee's direct supervisor or manager. Speaking to an HR manager, for example, might be helpful, but an HR employee is unlikely to have direct knowledge and insight on a person's day-to-day work habits and abilities.
  • Ask open-ended questions.
    • "What are her strengths?"
    • "What areas could she most improve upon?"
    • "How does she deal with conflict or stress?"
    • "How would you rank her skills relative to other employees?"
  • Describe your opening and ask the supervisor how they feel the prospective employee will handle the job duties. Pay particular attention to any hesitation or uncertainty on the part of the supervisor, and follow up if any answers seem unclear.
  • Finish with, "Are there things you feel I should know about this employee?" You'll be surprised what you may learn.

Again, make sure you only consider job-related information when making a hiring decision. Otherwise you could be open to charges of discrimination. Take the time to determine the skills and qualifications required to perform a particular job. Then determine what checks are appropriate, and decide ahead of time what constitutes "passing" or "failing" a background check. Finally, be fair and consistent and let your policies be your guide to making a good decision.

Your business, your employees, and your customers deserve to work with honest, ethical, and skilled employees. Perform the right background checks to ensure you do everything possible to identify those individuals before they join your team.