The Human Factor in Background Checks

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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.

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