Background Checks: two little words that make hiring managers groan and candidates squirm. How do they work and what information is revealed? You think you’re running a background screen to avoid hiring a money laundering fiend or a murderer, but can you ever be absolutely sure? Here are 3 things about background checks that might really surprise you:
#1: The 7-year rule is a myth
Most people seem to think that if a person committed a crime 7+ years ago, it magically disappears from their record. Not true! Any reputable background check vendor will give you ALL of the info they have on a person because they don’t want to be held liable for withholding information. If a disgruntled employee brings a gun to work one day and it turns out he had two assault charges from 12 years ago that weren’t disclosed on his background check, the background vendor runs the risk of a major lawsuit. This is good because as a hiring manager, you want to assess ANY risk to your company up front. It’s bad because sometimes good people make mistakes and people who you’d never expect will have something surprising show up. It’s best to have a plan about what you want to consider and for what time period (see #3 below).
#2: If you murdered someone in Hawaii while on vacation, it might not show up on your background
Yes, this is crazy—but true. This is where things get messy and confusing. You’d think that background checks were tied to a person’s Social Security Number and you’ll automatically be alerted if that SSN has any hits—whether it’s a speeding ticket or murder conviction. Not quite. Your background does not necessarily follow you unless you worked or owned property in the state where you committed the crime. Surprisingly, there is not one central database that houses criminal information from each state. There are actually hundreds of databases that hold information about a citizen’s criminal background—including each individual state and/or county’s Department of Corrections, the FBI, the Terrorist Watch List, and Sex Offender list, just to name a few. A good background screen will run your candidate’s SSN through these major lists, along with a variety of other databases from all of the places they’ve lived. However, it is quite possible for a person to commit a crime in another state that doesn’t make it to a national or federal database. So you’d need to know that your candidate lived in Hawaii (or even visited Hawaii) to know to look for anything from a speeding ticket to criminal activity there. Reputable background check vendors will use your candidate’s SSN to find aliases and places they’ve lived because any serious crimes will most likely have been in those locations. However, if your candidate committed a crime in a state that he didn’t live, work, or own property in, it may not show up.
#3: Your emotional investment in a candidate may cloud your judgement
It’s smart to have a company policy in place for what is acceptable regarding background check results before you become emotionally invested in a candidate. This keeps you from making exceptions that are not good for business. For example, you’ve put Tom through a rigorous interview process. He’s won over the executive team and you’re ready to make an offer—pending completion of his drug and background screen. When you get his results back, he has a narcotics charge from 8 years ago. Now you’re in a tough spot because your entire staff loves Tom. This can lead you to dismiss charges that you otherwise would not overlook because you’re emotionally invested in Tom. Worse, you may dismiss Tom’s “crime” but later find out that someone else had a similar charge and was not hired as a result. While we know that some employers don’t want a written policy because they don’t want to be tied to it, we definitely encourage our clients to at least consider developing a set of agreed-upon guidelines for use in background evaluations.
Regardless of your guidelines, be prepared for surprises. Some of the most amazing stories will come back related to the background checks that you receive. Be prepared to have frank discussions internally and with your candidates about background results that may not come back as you expected. Learn the difference between infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies—and some special words like nolle prosequi, Nolo contendere, dismissal with/without prejudice, and adjudication withheld—so that you may quickly assess the risk to your business based on what you find.