The Five Big Myths of Background Screening

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Whether you manage a company that routinely performs background screenings on prospective employees or are an individual who has had to consent to screening as a condition of taking a job or serving in a volunteer role, you may believe that you have a solid knowledge of what’s involved. Odds are you’re wrong.

There are a variety of widely circulated myths about screening that even well-informed businesspeople believe. Like the urban legends that crop up on social media sites, these myths circulate constantly, and the more often people hear them, the more they assume that they’re true. In this article, I’ll mention the five myths we hear most often, and I’ll debunk each of them with the underlying reality.

Myth #1: There’s a comprehensive database that holds all of America’s criminal information. People believe this myth in large part because of TV shows and movies in which police detectives enter someone’s name and instantly receive a nicely organized “rap sheet” of past offenses. Many people have heard that the Federal Bureau of Investigation runs a massive crime-information database, and they think it’s as powerful as what they’ve seen on TV.

While it’s true that the FBI manages the nation’s largest criminal database, known as NCIC (the National Crime Information Center), it’s not exactly comprehensive or reliable. That’s not a knock against the FBI. Instead it’s a reflection of the fact that the database is only as good as the information the Feds receives from state and municipal law enforcement agencies. Some send every arrest to NCIC, others send only certain offenses, and still others don’t send any. It’s designed to give police officers a quick way to tell what a suspect may have done, not to give employers reliable data for background checks.

Myth #2: Fingerprints are foolproof. We’ve learned since childhood that fingerprints are unique, making them a flawless way to identify people. Fingerprints can be effective way if they’re clearly readable and if they’re stored in a central database like NCIC. But if a local law-enforcement agency doesn’t share its fingerprints with the state police or the FBI, they won’t be in the system. If the prints were smudged or poorly scanned, they might be useless. If your background screening provider only uses fingerprints, you’re not getting a comprehensive screening.

Myth #3: Information is reported forever. Not quite. A criminal record may not appear in crime databases for any number of reasons. We’ll run into that situation when someone admits to a past conviction in their employment application, but our background check doesn’t find it. For example, if it was a misdemeanor that happened in Virginia over 10 years ago, the state will have destroyed the record. Another conviction may have been vacated or expunged by a local court. A juvenile arrest, even for a felony-level crime, may be sealed and inaccessible. A felony may be reduced to a misdemeanor as the result of a plea bargain. And mistakes happen. In other words, the fact that you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Myth #4: Background screening approaches are all alike. Many people use phrases like “background screening” or “criminal records search” as generic terms, assuming that one vendor’s process is as effective as the next. Fact is, there’s a great deal of difference in how screening companies investigate and report upon data. If the search is limited to fingerprint data, which is very common, a past arrest that wasn’t reported to the FBI won’t show up. We’ve even seen cases in which people arrested for having sex with minors have been able to plead those cases to lesser crimes, so they won’t show up on sex offender registries. Conscientious background screening companies will begin with basic data, but they’ll dig deeper to make sure you’re aware of important information that a quick search of a database will miss.

Myth #5: Screening decisions are simple. If you’re expecting a background screening report to give you clear guidance on whether or not you should hire someone, think again. The screening report provides basic information. It’s up to you and your company to apply judgment to that information. For example, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says you need to consider three questions. How long ago did the crime happen? How does the criminal record impact the position with your company? And what’s the nature of the crime? Taking a “zero-tolerance” approach will only land you in trouble.

Mike McCarty is CEO of Danville-based Safe Hiring Solutions 

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