Background checks are a normal course of the hiring process for many companies in the United States. In some industries – like financial services and education – this due diligence is actually mandated by government regulations. Even if not required by law, background checks help limit a company’s liability risk and can reduce turnover by ensuring that the right candidate is matched with the job from the beginning.

As workforces have globalized, companies are increasingly faced with the task of conducting pre-employment screenings for non-U.S. citizens. In 1960, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that only about six percent of the U.S. labor force was foreign-born. Today, that number is more than 16 percent. Additionally, about 11.7 million workers abroad are employed by the majority-owned affiliates of U.S. companies. If your company has not yet conducted a pre-employment screening on a foreign citizen, I can guarantee that the day is coming soon. 

The United States allows employers to look into any number of records concerning a candidate, including criminal history, credit reports, past employment and educational background. It is a relatively easy and straight-forward process. But if your candidate is not a U.S. citizen, conducting a “standard” background check could result in legal troubles, if not done correctly.  

Just because conducting background checks on foreign citizens can be difficult and time consuming, it’s an important step when hiring for nearly any position. In developing parts of the world – including Asia-Pacific, and parts of the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe – there are far more job seekers than available jobs. As many as 30 percent of the candidates from these regions embellish parts of their resumes and over-inflate their credentials in order to be more competitive. While this may be common practice, companies have a vested interest in making sure candidates have all of the skills and credentials set forth in their resumes. This can of course be done, but typically within different parameters from what is common practice in the United States. 


Know Your Legal Limits

When conducting a background check on a foreign candidate, your company can be held liable if anyone violates the laws governing a candidate’s country of citizenship. For example, Polish laws prohibit potential employers from obtaining an individual’s criminal history, while Australia prohibits personal credit checks. Violating these kinds of laws opens up companies to lawsuits, particularly if they make hiring decisions based on illegally obtained information. 

It’s also important to keep in mind that outsourcing a credit check to a third party does not indemnify your company in the case that illegal information is obtained. Many background check companies do not have a physical presence in the countries where they are researching information and may not be aware of each country’s unique set of laws. 

It’s important to look for service providers with a presence in the candidate’s country of citizenship and ensure that they have in-depth knowledge of the law. In many cases, legal limitations can be worked around, and it is up to the background check provider to recommend the best permissible option. 


Adjust Your Expectations

In the U.S., background checks are performed thoroughly and quickly. However, doing research in certain emerging and frontier markets takes much longer. Complications arise from things that American companies take for granted, for example, communication and data infrastructure that goes out for hours or days at a time. In addition, local sources of data may simply be limited or unavailable. Detailed criminal and civil records do not necessarily exist everywhere, while actions that are illegal in the U.S. – such as bribery and drug use – are cultural norms in other parts of the world and will probably not appear in personal records. 

Other times, the records could exist but might not cover the time period a company requires for its background check. For example, FINRA regulations require that some financial services companies conduct a seven-year criminal history search for a candidate, prior to employment. However, if that candidate is from India, the country only documents criminal history for five years, two years short of the U.S. regulation. 

A company has an obligation to address any such limitations as exceptions to the regulation or policy and must show that it has done everything reasonable and legal to obtain the required information.  This will typically satisfy the governing organization and mitigate the company’s legal risk in case concerns arise post-hire. 

In today’s global economy, excellent candidates can come from virtually anywhere in the world. With a little patience and extra effort, companies can confidently hire candidates from an unlimited pool of international talent.  


About the Author:

William Greenblatt is the founder and CEO of Sterling Infosystems, one of the largest privately held background check companies in the world. 

Like what you’re reading?
Subscribe FREE today at