No Red Flags is a Big Red Flag

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If you've requested hundreds of background screenings on candidates and employees and haven't seen any results, it means one of two things: you're hiring angels, or more likely, your background screening provider is dropping the ball.

In a recent column, I mentioned that some companies drop the background screening process after they receive no negative reports, because they reason that there’s no need for them to screen. We also get calls from companies that work with other background screening firms and are a little uneasy when hundreds of checks produce zero results.

They should be uneasy. Whether you’re running a school, a daycare, a youth sports league, or a law firm, our experience tells us that you should see between eight to ten reports for every 100 background checks you run. That doesn’t mean ten percent of your prospective hires or volunteers are criminals. Some of what the screening firm finds will turn out to be something a county clerk misfiled, an arrest that turned out to be unfounded, or even a simple typo. But we investigate every one of those to make sure there’s no reason for alarm.

If the firm you’re using isn’t finding any information to report, it’s a sign that they’re not digging deeply enough. They may be using internet searches or databases that contain only a fraction of available criminal records.

A truly comprehensive background check may begin with some of those searches and databases, but that’s only the starting point. The difference comes when the human element is applied. A computer system may not spot an inconsistency between two pieces of data, but a human observer will wonder why the pieces don’t match up. That may prompt an additional search or a phone call to the agency that created the original record. In some cases, we may even visit the county where the report occurred to investigate what happened.

If an applicant’s last name is Johnson, it makes sense to check for misspellings or variations such as Johnsen and Johnsson. Sometimes, first names and last names get swapped, and Christopher Thomas shows up in a record as Thomas Christopher. The computer flags your applicant as someone who committed a violent assault, but a human investigation discovers that the real assailant lived in the same area, has the same name, but a different Social Security number. Perhaps your prospective hire was convicted of a crime, but a distracted court clerk transposed two digits of her Social Security number. Or we discover that your candidate once faced a rape charge that was quickly dismissed when the police realized they had the wrong guy. These things happen far more often than most people realize.

We even had a case in which a convicted felon slipped through another company’s background check because he had legally changed his name while serving his sentence in prison. By digging a little deeper, a human checker was able to find his birth name and the accompanying record. When confronted by the employer, he freely admitted his past crime, but correctly noted that nothing in the employer’s applications and releases asked him if he ever used another name. He wasn’t pleased with our team’s diligence, but he was impressed.

The key message here is that thorough background checks are neither easy nor cheap. Settling for a low-cost service over the internet generally means settling for a check that only skims the surface. If you end up hiring a thief to work in your accounting department, or a coach for your youth soccer team who has a history of boundary issues with kids because their background checks came back without any warning signs, who’s really at fault? When you’re in court facing a negligent hiring lawsuit from someone they victimized, will your bargain background check make a convincing defense?

In other words, you need to scrutinize the company that provides your background screenings as carefully as you want them to scrutinize your potential employees. Find out what they examine and how they go about it. If they tell you they check public records, ask which records and how exactly they do it. A reputable firm will be proud to share that information; a low-cost data aggregator will likely be evasive.

And if you haven’t seen a plausible number of negative results, ask a different provider to run checks on some of the same people. You may be surprised...or a little bit terrified...at what they discover.

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

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