As a provider of background screening services, I’m pleased that a growing number of employers see the value of taking a deeper look at prospective employees. At the same time, I’m concerned at how many of those employers view a background check as a standalone strategy.

Background checks are not strategies. Instead, they’re one of the tools that can play a role in broader strategies for hiring and retention. And while they are a particularly useful tool, the companies who use them best are those that start by creating sound policies.

There’s good reason for that. First, having clear policies ensures that everyone understands what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. It increases the likelihood that your program will be effective, and that it will be applied consistently. It reduces the possibility that decisions will be made for subjective reasons, rather than objectively. Finally, having (and following) clear policies can help you defend your actions if you’re challenged in the legal arena.

Some employers find that idea frustrating, because it requires extra time and trouble on their part. But as with so many other things in business, investing more time and effort on the front end will reduce the potential for problems and wrong turns.

So where do you start? Ask yourself why you want to screen prospective employees. Simply saying “we don’t want to hire bad people” isn’t enough. Do you serve vulnerable populations? Does the company assume liability for employee behavior? Are employees trusted with customer assets? Do you wish to protect the company’s hard-earned reputation? By starting with definitive answers to questions like these, you’ll get a better sense of what you’ll want to assess and why.

Your policy should address how you’ll assess the behavior of both candidates and employees. You may be thinking of pre-employment screening, but it’s just as important to check on your current employees from time to time. Your policy needs to make it clear that being able to pass a background check is not only a condition for employment, but that it’s also part of remaining employed.

Next, you need to define when and how you’ll perform those checks and who’s going to pay for them. Are candidates expected to foot the bill for their own background checks? What about employees? And if you decide to recheck people after they’ve been hired, you need to spell out when that will happen. It may be the same interval for everyone, or you may choose to schedule more frequent checks for people in sensitive roles. Your policy needs to consider legal disclosure requirements. Many states have laws that require specific disclosures that must be handled in specific ways.

All that provides a good start, but now we’ve come to the tough part: what to do with the information you receive about prospective and current employees? You might think that’s easy: if you get back news about someone, you don’t hire them, or if they’re already an employee, you show them the door. Not so fast. If you’re making hiring and retention decisions based upon information you obtain through background checks, you’ll probably trigger requirements of the Fair Credit Reporting Act. That law spells out very clear steps that you’ll have to take if you decide not to hire or retain, and those steps should be a key part of your policy.

How will you monitor your program to ensure that it’s being followed and the results are in line with your expectations? Your policy should include provisions for measuring its success. You may even want to set up a formal audit process to review individual cases and ensure that your team performed as they should.

Once you have all those elements in place, you need to implement the policy. If you’ve thought through all the other steps and defined everything clearly, this should be the easiest step of all.

Creating sound policy that accomplishes all of these points can be challenging. That’s where it helps to have a top-quality background check partner who can provide model policies and direct you to the expertise you need to draft your own program. And it’s a reason to choose that partner every bit as carefully as you choose your employees.

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

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