The private sector hiring process has traditionally involved four steps: submitting an application, obtaining an interview, accepting the position and signing the paperwork that makes the job official.
More and more, however, a fifth step — the background check — is now added. To avoid surprises, workers should educate themselves about the process in preparation for what’s increasingly likely to come. Pre-employment screening and background checks have been around for a quarter century. But employers have submitted candidates to substantially more such checks over the last 10 years. Technology has lowered costs and made checks easier.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2005 Reference and Background Checking Survey Report, 96 per cent of employers conduct some form of background or reference check on job applicants; screening services firm ADP said in its 2006 Screening Index that it conducted nearly 4.9 million background checks in 2005, up more than 20 per cent from 2003.
“Historically, background checks had been limited to large companies that handled money and individuals who were pretty high up within an organisation,” says James Lee, chief marketing officer of Alpharetta, Georgia-based employment screening company ChoicePoint. But with new technology, “it is no longer limited to executives — now you can check everyone”.
A proliferation of lawsuits that have found employers liable for employees’ criminal conduct, as well as security concerns following September 11, 2001, have also contributed to the increase in checks conducted.
With background checks on the rise across all industries, what should workers know about background checks and their use in determining their suitability for employment' If an employer has issued an offer — background checks don’t take place until that point — it will generally look for three things, according to Lee:
• Identity verification. Are you who you say you are'
• Criminal history. Do you have a criminal conviction'
• Employment and education verification. Did you work and go to school where you say you did'
How an employer might investigate those matters can vary. A lengthy list of data points might be sought, according to SHRM, including:
• criminal record
• credit record
• former employers, dates of employment and job titles and responsibilities
• schools, colleges and universities attended
• degrees, certifications and licenses
• driving record
• malpractice history or other professional disciplinary actions
• salary history
• publications and speaking history
Importantly, workers can’t choose to “opt out” of certain portions of a background check. If they want to accept the offer, they must consent to the entire thing — though they are entitled to know exactly what information will be checked.
Employers may tailor screenings further based on the specific position. A bad credit report might be more important to a company looking to hire someone who wants to work in finance, explains Terry Bradley, manager of research and development recruitment at pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, while spots on a driving record may not reflect well on a would-be delivery driver.
“If I do a background check on a person and they have a bad credit report and I am considering them for an administrative assistant position,” Bradley says, “it would be unfair to consider their credit because they are not handling money.”
Employers are also often interested in evaluating potential employees’ past behaviours in an attempt to identify patterns and perhaps predict future behaviours — especially in the case of criminal conduct and driving records — by checking how recent and how serious a candidate’s transgressions might have been so as to take into account that people can mature, grow and leave past problems behind. “We are looking for a pattern of behaviours and determining if a person is now accountable and responsible,” Bradley says.
It’s because of this that it behooves job candidates to be as forthcoming as possible when applying for work and answering background-related questions, experts say, particularly in the case of criminal matters: Apparent lies or inconsistencies may reinforce concerns about past behaviours or raise unnecessary questions. Many employers, meanwhile, will work with individuals to reach common ground if aspects of a person’s background raise flags.
And attempting to hide information may prove fruitless anyway with so much data easily available electronically and otherwise. “The best tip I can offer is to tell the truth. Do not lie and misrepresent yourself, because it will be found out,” says Bradley.