5 Things to Know Before Running a Pre-Employment Background Check

3 min read
Mar 31, 2015

iStock_000012539222_SmallIf you’re a small-business owner, you know you can’t find out everything you might need to know about a prospective employee from reading their resume, or even from an interview. A background check would give you some insight into a candidate’s character via criminal and educational records, social media posts, credit history, and previous employment. But if you’re thinking of conducting a background check on a prospective employee yourself, you need to keep a few things in mind.

It’s too easy to go wrong when conducting a background check to inadvertently come across information that violates the candidate’s rights under federal or state law. Nor should you assume that the information you glean from a background check presents a complete picture of a candidate as a person. Here’s what you need to know before you run a pre-employment background check.

1. Some Things Are Off-Limits

There are some portions of a candidate’s personal history that you’re simply not privy to, under law, and you shouldn’t try to use a background check, or any other means, to uncover this information. For example, you cannot request someone’s medical records or discriminate based on a candidate’s medical history or needs. Military service records are also difficult to get your hands on — you’ll need the person’s permission, although the military will tell you the person’s name, rank, salary, duty assignments, and status without it. You also need permission to look at school records, like transcripts or recommendations, although degrees and certifications are a matter of public record.

Your right to look into a person’s criminal history varies from state to state. Polygraph tests and written honesty tests are also prohibited in many circumstances.

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2. The More Expansive the Background Check, the Better

Though some things are off-limits, when you’re conducting a background check on a prospective employee, it’s best to go further than just criminal and public records checks. Yes, it’s good to know that your prospective new hire isn’t a hardened criminal, although the EEOE is attempting to discourage employers from placing too much emphasis on a candidate’s criminal history. You’ll learn much more useful information about a person if you investigate their social media use, credit history, and driving records. Of course, you should verify that the person really holds any degree they claim to hold, and you should also investigate their employment history.

3. Look for the Good as Well as the Bad

It’s easy to think of background checks as a way to uncover negative information about a prospective hire, but they can also uncover positive information that may not have been evident otherwise. Good references from previous employers, additional licenses or certifications that don’t pertain to the position or field, a positive credit history, or evidence of volunteer work on social media are all some good things that might come up on a background check.

4. You Still Need to Talk to the Applicant

If something negative does come up on a pre-employment background check, you may not want to automatically reject the client without speaking to them, especially if the candidate seems otherwise good. For one thing, a single mistake does not, and should not, have any bearing on whether a person is capable of being a good employee. This is especially true if the negative incident occurred a long time ago. Furthermore, it’s possible that the negative information is a reporting error.

5. Consider Using a Professional Agency

The laws surrounding what information you’re allowed to obtain during a background check may vary from one state to the next. A properly trained professional with some knowledge of privacy and anti-discrimination laws is an ideal person to perform a background check. Even if you don’t personally have this kind of background, someone at your company may fit the bill. If you’re worried about running into legal issues, or you don’t have anyone in your company who has the appropriate background, you may want to consider outsourcing this task to a professional background check agency. It’s not absolutely necessary, however; use your discretion.

Background checks can help you learn as much as possible about a prospective candidate before hiring them, and you need to include it in your recruitment strategy. But you don’t have free rein when it comes to a person’s private information and personal history. Make sure you’re respecting privacy and anti-discrimination laws, so you can benefit from background checks without compromising anyone’s rights.



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