Online Background Checks: Answering Common Questions About Features and Services

HR professionals play more than a handful of roles every day. They help shape their company’s business strategy and ensure their own department’s policies support their employer’s overarching goals. They serve as the bridge between management and employees by elevating worker viewpoints, communicating executive decisions, and facilitating ongoing dialog throughout an organization. As first-line players in the recruitment process, they’re in a unique position to influence company culture. They’re also responsible for mitigating risk throughout each of these processes.

With the advent of the digital age, HR professionals have a new tool at their disposal for managing the risks involved in recruitment. Increasingly, they’re relying on electronic background checkers to perform, in short order, the research that used to make hiring a more protracted undertaking. Particularly in today’s competitive job market, the speed of hiring represents an important strategic goal for virtually any organization.

Is an online background checker right for my company?

That depends on the product and the company behind it. Marketers define the term “background checker” loosely. Some are perfectly well-suited to finding your long-lost college roommate but don’t meet the needs of HR professionals, whose companies’ security and own professional reputations rest on hiring only the most trustworthy candidates.

The first thing to look for in a background check service is a commitment to operating exclusively in ways that are FCRA- and EEOC-compliant, as evidenced by its Professional Background Screening Association (PBSA) accreditation. The non-compliant acts of your background check partner may count as your own in a litigation scenario. From a legal standpoint, you often are the company you keep. Before initiating a background check with any service provider, be sure you understand precisely how the company conducts its searches to prevent running afoul of regulations and ethical standards.

What services do background checkers provide?

Background checkers search a wide range of public records to provide you with the essential information you can’t glean from a personal interview. They verify a candidate’s identity, educational qualifications, and employment history. They check criminal, driving, and military records, civil court filings, and a candidate’s credit history. Some perform reference checks—though, given the subtlety of communication and level of intuition involved in reference checking, that may be a task you decide to reserve for yourself.  Some services also gather information from candidates’ social media profiles.

Apart from maintaining strict adherence to employment law themselves, the best background checkers incorporate features that help keep you compliant, too. At various stages of the recruiting process, they automate both routine and complex legally mandated functions, from distributing disclosure statements and collecting electronic signatures to properly communicating adverse actions—all in keeping with federal, state, and municipal employment law.

The bottom line is that background check services free up recruiters and hiring managers to focus on professional qualifications and cultural fit while addressing equally critical characteristics like safety, honesty, and reliability.

What other features should I look for in a background checker?

A background check is only as complete as the resources it relies on. Services will advertise how many records they search. That’s one indicator of how effectively they operate. But since these records are typically housed in proprietary databases, it’s also important to inquire how often a company updates its data.

While some organizations opt for standard background check packages, the ability to customize checks based on the specific characteristics of your company or industry can be important. Some services specialize in searches for the financial industry or medical professions, for example, where a more extensive and focused range of record searching is critical. But search customization can also be important to recruiters of every stripe who hire for a broad spectrum of positions.

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In any candidate search, shortening the hiring process is on both employers’ and prospective employees’ minds. This may go without saying, but don’t be tempted by services that promise instant results. Thorough checks are much more likely to take a few days. Instead of focusing on speed, look for services that simplify the background check process through the use of innovative technology. 24/7 mobile access for both employers and candidates, integration with candidate tracking platforms like Lever, Jobvite, and Bamboo, and a steady, logical stream of alerts and updates are features that distinguish the best services. Services that allow candidates to comment during the process can help prospective employees feel more at ease over the course of a check.

How should I budget for background checks?

Individual services approach pricing differently. You can commission checks on a pay-per basis, but companies that offer subscription-style services can make more sense for large organizations. Which standard package you choose and how specifically you customize your searches will also influence how much you pay for each individual search. Be aware that services often charge a premium for shorter, guaranteed turnaround times. Look for a service that offers you a highly detailed quote. Read the terms of any agreement you sign very carefully and ask questions upfront. Billing misunderstandings and discrepancies account for a large portion of complaints against the background check industry.

What are some common pitfalls of using a background checker?

Some background checkers will include an investigation of a candidate’s social media profile. Typically, social media profiles reveal personal information that cannot be used to make hiring decisions. Even if you scrupulously avoid asking questions around race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and other categories that fall under the heading of EEOC violations, you could be accused of doing so if you rely on information gleaned from social media profiles.

Background checks commonly encompass about seven years’ worth of data. Many states specifically limit the number of years that criminal and credit records can be used as hiring criteria. So depending on where a candidate has lived before and how long he or she has been in the workforce, your report may tell you less than you’d like to know. While you can do your best to mitigate these risks, keep in mind that you can’t expect every report to be 100% accurate.

How can I get the most out of the background checks I commission?

An overwhelming majority of organizations perform background checks—but far fewer optimize the process. To get the most value out of background checks, try to be consistent in how you structure them and how you evaluate them. Don’t let a time crunch or a shift in your mood get in the way of your thoroughness or objectivity. Documenting your procedure for reviewing checks, including prioritizing your criteria, can be helpful in this regard. When reviewing a background report, don’t let single incidents or details drive your decision to hire. Just as you would in a live interview, look for patterns of behavior—both positive and negative—which tend to be more accurate predictors of a candidate’s future performance.

Keeping competitive while staying safe

Hiring, of course, is a two-way street. Employers look for the best employees and vice versa. How your company conducts background checks is one of a candidate’s first indicators of how your company runs its business.  Before choosing a background check partner, take each one you’re considering for an actual test drive. Request a demo, by all means. Experiment with each company’s electronic interfaces. Making the right choice will help you put your best foot forward by making the background check process painless, at the very least, and perhaps even reassuring for prospective hires.

Susan Doktor is a freelance writer who hails from The Bronx, NY. She writes on a wide variety of topics – from the best background checkers to food, health and anything in between. Her passion is design in all its forms and she believes nature’s most perfect design of all comes in the shape of a Golden Retriever.

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