In today’s “microwave society” the need for speed often supersedes thoroughness, but in the absence of comprehensive background checks on prospective employees, haste can result in waste…and sometimes worse.

Gone are the days when the hiring process was based on a good “gut” feeling and a firm handshake, yet there remain a fair number of otherwise very savvy business people who take the self-service approach to background screening. Without question, the Internet has made the screening process somewhat simple and inexpensive, but without knowing what to look for and where to find it, information can be confusing and/or misleading.

In addition, you may be treading on illegal ground, for while you have the right to obtain specific information when conducting a pre-employment background check, those rights are not unlimited. Employees are entitled to privacy in certain areas, and if those rights are violated, legal action can be taken against you.

That said, at the top of the allowed list of screening sources for most employers is a search for criminal records. But there are myriad of ways to search for them and it is incumbent on the employer to ask questions about the source for a variety of reasons. If a background screening firm is providing access to a private database – even those that claim to be national in scope – it’s critical that the employer know the limitations of these searches and the added legal responsibility imposed to verify the information at the original source (usually the court). 

If the screening firm is searching a statewide repository for criminal records, it’s important to know its limitations as well. This will vary by state and you need to balance the benefits of searching an entire state for criminal records in one search versus the generally more accurate and up-to-date information found in a county court search.

Consider also that significant differences exist between a national database search, a real-time county level search and a state repository investigation. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, as well as considerable cost differences.

Again, the best place to search for a criminal record is at the original source – the courthouse where the record originated. That could be county or federal court, so it’s wise to work with a professional background screening organization with an established national network of court researchers. In this way, a request can be sent automatically to a local researcher who knows how to navigate the court system in that particular jurisdiction.

A county or federal district court search yields the most accurate and up-to-date criminal record information available and should always be used to verify results from the quicker but often less reliable database searches…especially if a record possibly matching a potential employee shows up.

Having the correct identification information is vital to conducting a criminal search…and people hiding a past they know might prevent them from getting a job can be good at keeping a secret. Reporting a false date of birth may be enough to bring back a “no record found” on the report when a serious criminal conviction actually exists. 

Imagine the potential harm if an employee is involved in a workplace act of violence because you didn’t have knowledge of past similar occurrences – whether due to not conducting a background check or a missed conviction record resulting from ineffective pre-employment screening.

In terms of obtaining a consumer report, under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), employers must obtain a potential employee’s written consent before seeking this documentation. Note that background screening agencies are considered Consumer Reporting Agencies (CRA) under the FCRA; all reports provided by a CRA are therefore deemed to be consumer reports. And if your decision not to hire that individual is based on consumer report information, you’re obligated to provide the applicant with a copy of the report and inform him/her of their right to challenge the report. Take note also that some states incorporate more rigid rules limiting the use of consumer reports than does the federal FCRA.

Take the time to learn the fundamentals of a background screening so that it’s commensurate with the level of trust and responsibility that goes with the available position. It will prove to be a worthwhile investment.