Let’s Talk About Background Checks

Most organizations conduct background checks of some variety. There are many different checks that can be conducted:

  1. Criminal history: Examples include arrests, felonies, convictions, and sex offender registry. They can be run nationwide, statewide, and by county. The typical company will only go back seven years, but some will check for lifetime offenses.
  2. Credit history: At least seven states (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Oregon, and Washington) have passed laws prohibiting employers from pulling credit reports or limiting how employers may use them to make hiring or other job decisions. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), more than 20 states are currently considering similar legislation. In these states, employers cannot inquire about payment history or credit worthiness, credit standing, or credit capacity. That includes credit card debt, child support, student loans, a foreclosure, missed or late payments, bankruptcies, judgments, and liens. Check your state laws before running a credit check on candidates, or you may be liable for fines.
  3. Former Employment Verification: This check is simply confirming past job titles and dates of employment from a candidate’s resume or application. I find this check to be a waste of time frankly. It delays the hire process because past employers can take weeks, if ever, to confirm. Oftentimes, the dates are incorrect because of lack of memory from years ago and particularly if the candidate had many different jobs. In addition, candidates tend to confuse temporary agency or contract employment with actually being employed at the location they worked, so the checks come back not matching. I believe interviewers should be skilled enough to weed out the fabrications without this cumbersome check.
  4. Education Verification: This check verifies a high school diploma/GED and/or college degrees. This one is useful because a decent amount of people lie about graduating on their resumes. This was the number one reason in my career for people not getting an offer due to failing their background check. They only attended the school, but never graduated.
  5. Professional References: Along with former employment verifications, I think companies should toss this one out the window. Think about it. Who in their right mind would give a reference of someone who would say negative things about them? You are going to give close friends at former or current jobs and only those former managers who you are confident will speak highly of you as references. In my 20-year career, I only had one candidate not receive an offer due to a negative reference. I actually felt sorry for the woman because I am sure she had no idea this person would speak poorly of her and he cost her a job!
  6. Drug Screen: Organizations will generally either conduct a 5-panel or 10-panel drug screen. A typical 5-panel screen would include Cocaine, Marijuana, PCP (Phencyclidine), Amphetamines (including methamphetamines, also known as crystal meth), and Opiates (including heroin, codeine and morphine). A 10-panel would add the following onto the above-mentioned: Benzodiazepines (such as Xanax), Barbiturates, Methadone, Propoxyphene, and Methaqualone (Quaaludes). Due to the legalization of marijuana in some states, companies may remove marijuana testing from their panels, but be aware that since the drug is still illegal federally, most companies still test for it and you will have your offer rescinded if you screen positive.
  7. Pre-Employment Physical: Employees may be required to have physicals if health or fitness is a job requirement; for example, police officers or firefighters may be asked to demonstrate physical fitness necessary to perform the functions of their job. Physical ability tests may be conducted for potential employees in the manual and physical labor sectors. Abilities such as stamina, flexibility, and strength are normally considered. For example, employers may ask job seekers to prove that they can lift a set amount of weight, if doing so is part of the routine duties of the job. Check with your legal counsel before requiring physicals. This is a topic of many legal battles.

Whichever background checks you as an organization decide to take advantage of, you need to make sure that you are consistent on what passes and what does not. A former employer had a large spreadsheet that told the recruiters exactly what criminal offenses were acceptable and which would result in the offer being rescinded. This formal process avoided subjective opinions based on who the recruiter is. I would recommend working with legal counsel on creating a similar process.

The other checks are more objective. Obviously, if someone fails the drug test, they shouldn’t be hired. The same applies for someone who is dishonest about their education or former employment.

The best advice is to be 100% transparent on your resume and application because there is a high likelihood that the potential employer will conduct a thorough background check. And, stop taking drugs before you begin your job search! No - we won’t allow you to get the drugs out of your system for a month and re-test.