The Human Factor in Background Checks

Posted: Updated:

As a successful business owner or manager, you've learned to trust your gut. What some like to call intuition is really the sum of your experiences reacting at a subconscious level. But can you trust your gut when it comes to pre-employment screening?

Before I started a background screening company, I spent several years as a detective in a large city. The most successful police officers develop a well-honed sense about people and situations. Detectives questioning a suspect generally know whether they're hearing the truth and when they're being fed clever lines. However, they also know that they can't obtain convictions using their gut alone. They need hard data, too.

Data isn't everything, either. Some low-price background check firms use automated processes that capture huge volumes of data and pass it along to clients. Coming from a detective's background, I believe that alone doesn't constitute a thorough background check. Human eyes need to sift through the data to pick up the clues that algorithms alone can't capture. Why? Two reasons: some people lie, and some honest people make honest mistakes. Data alone usually can't identify lies or mistakes. Some degree of human interpretation is needed.

The vast majority of job candidates are honest people. Our job is to catch the remainder of folks who don't think twice about making minor changes to their names or omitting key facts in an effort to fool employers and law enforcement officials. That's why we look beyond the basic information provided by applicants and consider where opportunities for mistakes could arise. Sometimes, it's a simple misspelling of the name. Other times, it may involve the way different jurisdictions handle something like a hyphenated name. One county may include the hyphen, another may not, a third may treat one of the names as a middle name, and some overworked employee at any of the three may just make a mistake when entering it into the system. However, a simple data check won't uncover those variations or mistakes. It takes human eyes and curiosity to unearth them.

For example, let's say you’re considering a prospective employee named Chris Paul (a name I've created completely at random, and with sincere apologies to any Chris Pauls reading this). A check of this Chris Paul's name didn't reveal any criminal activity, but it turns out that he was arrested for domestic violence five years ago. How can that be the case? A sleepy clerk at the local police station inadvertently reversed his name to Paul Chris when entering it in the system. If his name had been John Smith, the mistake would have been obvious, because “Smith John” would have stood out. (The fact that “Chris” can be short for both “Christopher” and “Christine” introduces all sorts of opportunities for confusion.)

Other pieces of data warrant additional scrutiny. When we receive a Social Security number for an applicant, we compare it to the Social Security Administration's records. More than 99 percent of the time, there are no problems. But then there are those cases when something isn't right. Often, it's just an accidental transposition of digits. At other times, we discover that the applicant is using the Social Security number of someone who has died. Again, most people are honest, but it's our responsibility to identify those who are gaming the system.

The lesson here is that data alone isn't enough. Neither are “gut feelings.” To screen prospective employees effectively, you need to combine both data and human interpretation. If your background check company isn't providing that human element for you, you'll need to take a more active role in interpreting the results you receive.

That's especially important when the results aren't entirely clear, because what really happened may be very different than what you imagined. Suppose you're reconsidering a promising candidate because he has a long-ago conviction for indecent exposure. Yes, that could mean he was exposing himself to strangers, but in many jurisdictions, it could mean that he was caught urinating in an alley after being over-served at a nightclub. A little extra investigation will help you discover the truth, because many charges that sound terrible actually turn out to be relatively minor.

Don't ignore your gut, and don't ignore the data that comes back when you receive a background check. But combine the two with a little more thought and research, and you'll get a more complete picture of your prospective employees.

Mike McCarty is CEO of Danville-based Safe Hiring Solutions.

  • Perspectives

    • How to Find a New Audience After Hitting a Marketing Plateau

      It may sound like a marketer’s dream scenario: efforts have proven to be so successful it appears a company has completely saturated their target audience. While it may be a good problem to have, it still may be a problem. Hitting a marketing plateau is an opportunity for companies in any industry to reevaluate, re-energize and come to the table with new ideas for better understanding existing customers and engaging new audiences.

    More

Events



  • Most Popular Stories

    • Shaina Keck

      Pier 48 Manager Named

      FK Restaurant Group has named Shaina Keck sales and banquet manager for Pier 48 Fish House and Bar in downtown Indianapolis. She previously served in sales at Kilroy's Bar & Grill. Keck is a graduate of Indiana University Kelly School of Business with a bachelor of science degree in finance and accounting with a concentration in international studies.  
    • (image courtesy of The Times of Northwest Indiana)

      Crews Start Demolition of Carson's in Hammond

      The face of downtown retail in Hammond is changing once again with the demolition of Carson’s department store, the one-time the anchor of Woodmar Mall. Our partners at The Times of Northwest Indiana report excavating crews have started to demolish the last vestige of the shopping center which stood since the 1950s. 

    • (image courtesy of The Times of Northwest Indiana)

      U.S. Steel Cuts Jobs, Low Price Imports Partially to Blame

      Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel has announced it will idle its tin mill operations in East Chicago, affecting nearly 300 workers, half of which will lose their jobs. Our partners at The Times of Northwest Indiana report U.S. Steel blames the layoffs on the Del Monte food company which announced its own mass layoffs. 

    • Gas City Startup Helping Hemp Farmers

      Last month, it became legal for Hoosier farmers to grow hemp and a Gas City-based startup is being aggressive in being among the first to take advantage of market opportunities. Heartland Harvest Processing is helping farmers connect the new agricultural commodity to consumer products, including CBD. Founder and Chief Marketing Officer Chris Moorman says the first hemp harvest under the new law is expected to begin next month. In an interview with Business of Health...

    • Lucy Schaich

      City of Bloomington Promotes Schaich

      The city of Bloomington has promoted Lucy Schaich to volunteer network coordinator, a program of the Community and Family Resources Department.  She served as assistant coordinator from 2000 until 2018, when she became the volunteer network’s interim director. Schaich is a graduate of Indiana University.