If your company has started obtaining background checks of prospective employees, congratulations on making a smart move. However, getting those screenings is only the first step in the process. The bigger question is what you should do once you receive them.

The answer to that question may seem to be obvious, but it’s actually not. What employers do with background checks has a profound impact on their workforce, and increasingly, upon their legal liability. Over the past decade, those of us in the background screening industry have witnessed a significant shift in philosophies about both the role and the scope of screening.

Ten years ago, 9/11 was still fresh enough in people’s minds that the general attitude was that no review was too intrusive if it meant keeping the nation safer. When it comes to certain types of ex-offenders, such as those who have been convicted of sex crimes, that attitude continues to be in place.

Elsewhere, though, attitudes have shifted to awareness that broad-brush standards for hiring tend to be unfair and may even cross the line into discrimination. That change is reflected in the spread of “ban the box” laws that prevent prospective candidates from being rejected solely because of past arrests and convictions. It also appears in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s efforts to protect minority applicants by taking a more thoughtful approach to considering criminal records.

Suppose your company is hiring for a position that involved handling cash, and you have three finalists. You request background checks on each of them. One comes back with no record of criminal activity. One has a past felony conviction and a brief prison stay, followed by successfully completed parole. And the third had been arrested on three occasions for misdemeanors. Which do you hire?

Many companies are quick to say they’ll hire the first and pass on the other two. Based on the actions the EEOC has taken, that attitude could land you in trouble, especially if the two rejected candidates are members of minority groups. Instead of taking a zero-tolerance approach or setting arbitrary standards for issues such as past criminal behavior, the EEOC wants you to take a three-pronged approach. First, you need to consider the actual crime. Second, you have to consider how long ago it happened. Finally, you have to think about how the criminal activity relates to the specific position.

For example, if you’re a school district’s administrator, and a prospective employee had a five-year-old DUI conviction with no further criminal activity, should that affect your decision to hire him? If he’s a candidate for a custodial position, probably not. If it’s for a classroom aide, you’ll probably want to give it some extra thought. And if it’s for a bus driver, it just isn’t acceptable.

You also have to weigh the age at which the crime took place and what has happened since then. Take our earlier example. The three misdemeanors racked up by that one candidate were for shoplifting, and all occurred when the candidate was 18 and 19. She’s 32 today, and hasn’t been arrested since. During her 20s, she worked in retail stores and spent three years as a credit union teller. In the EEOC’s view, you need to put more emphasis on that successful work as a teller and in retail, because it’s more recent and better reflects who she is today. The same standards apply to that convicted felon. If she’s also been a successful, trusted employee in the ensuing years, you’re expected to give her the benefit of the doubt.

In other words, if you want to stay out of court and ensure that you’re treating people fairly, when you receive background screenings, don’t use them to make absolute decisions or apply zero-tolerance-type standards. Dig a little deeper and think a little harder.

There’s never been a time when it made more sense to use background checks than today. And there’s never been a more critical time to make sure you’re using those background checks appropriately and fairly. The assessment process may begin with the document from your screening provider, but the most important steps take place when you apply thought to the raw information.

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

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