Background Checks Time-Consuming When Done Right

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By Martin Berman-Gorvine

Sept. 22 — Thorough and accurate background checks on job candidates take time to complete, but employers can take steps to make sure the process moves along as fast as possible, consultants agree.

Lots of factors can cause delays. “Just the date and time you place your order matters for education and employment verifications, more than for criminal records,” Chris Cassimus Sr., product management director at Seattle-based screening company Sterling Talent Solutions, said. For example, businesses on the East Coast may already be closed if an order is placed late in the afternoon Pacific time, adding 18 to 20 hours to turnaround time, he said, adding that there are also holiday delays, and if a candidate’s high school needs to be contacted, there may be reduced staffing during summer vacation.

Drug screenings take time too; if the candidate has a “non-negative screen,” Cassimus said, the result has to be checked against the person’s prescriptions.

Trolling the Court System

Criminal background checks pose their own problems. To begin with, there are “over 3,300 county, state, federal criminal record databases” to be checked, Cassimus said.

One type of criminal background check engages the court system directly. “Primary source searches” return criminal record data directly from the municipal, county, state or federal courthouse, Deepesh Saini, Sterling’s vice president for automation and fulfillment systems, said.

Some courts have information available electronically, but to search those that make limited or no information available online, screening companies like Sterling must have someone do the research in person. A “runner” is “a researcher who is dispatched to a court’s physical location to retrieve criminal record data,” Cassimus said.

Database searches aggregate information from publicly available sources and are supposed to be “instant,” Saini said, but with drawbacks. Information gleaned in this way is “often incomplete, out-of-date and needs to be validated with primary source searches before being reported to an employer,” he said.

“Hits” that indicate someone has a criminal record typically take longer to research than “clears” that indicate that the candidate has none. This is because “to make a complete record, you have to visit the courthouse to get it,” Saini said. It may turn out that a criminal record that’s been found doesn’t actually pertain to the job candidate. Social Security numbers and middle names—the latter often not provided by candidates at the start of the application process—may be needed, he said. For similar reasons, checking people with common names can take longer than checking people with unique names, he said. Also, candidates who have frequently moved to different counties take longer to vet than those who have stayed in the same county, Saini said.

An additional complication is that court records may be missing key data, such as final disposition or sentencing information, Cassimus said. “Any missing or mismatched information there may require additional investigation,” he said.

“It’s always important to understand the scope of a criminal search—how many primary sources are involved,” he said. “Some customers want seven years of searches based on [the candidates'] addresses; some only want a search in the county of current residence.”

On the Lookout for Fraud

Criminal background checks may not even turn up candidates with a potential for committing fraud, John Warren, vice president and general counsel of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 22. According to the association, only 5.2 percent of fraud perpetrators had a prior conviction, and 8.3 percent had been terminated by a previous employer, which “doesn’t mean they haven’t done it before,” he said.

Prior employers wary of liability for defamation may be reluctant to warn potential employers about a former employee who is on the job market because he or she has been caught committing fraud, Warren said. “The most they may say is that the person is ‘not eligible for rehire,’ which is code for ‘they’ve done something bad but we’re not going to tell you what.’”

Ferreting out a potential fraudster takes time and money, “but you’re saving yourself a lot of money on the back end” by avoiding being defrauded, Warren said.

Employment Verification Is More Human

Checking a job candidate’s education and employment can take a long time because “there is just a lot greater reliance on a human than for criminal record searches,” Cassimus said. Someone has to pick up the phone, or respond to an email, to verify a candidate worked at each employer. And when it comes to educational achievements—people’s last names may have changed since they were awarded their degree, he said.

“Verifications that are conducted with employers or institutions outside of the U.S., similar to criminal records, often require additional documentation and will take longer to fulfill,” Cassimus said.

An additional factor is that while background checks on hourly workers are “pretty straightforward” such that vendors can often provide them within 48 hours, finding out what kind of an employee a candidate for a salaried position is can take more time, Tony Lee, vice president of editorial at the Society for Human Resource Management, told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 21.

How to Save Time

Cassimus and Saini suggested that to speed up the background check process, employers should:

  •  provide each candidate’s middle name;
  •  make sure the date of birth is correct;
  •  provide all necessary consent forms at the time of submission;
  •  provide detailed employment and education information, including the applicant’s name at the time of employment or when the diploma or degree was awarded; and
  •  allow sufficient time for screening, especially if international checks are required.
An additional tip from Lee, who is responsible for talent acquisition at SHRM, is to “turn it back to the candidate.” HR can “tell them they’re a finalist,” ask them to contact three former supervisors for references and have them call a specified phone number within 48 to 72 hours. “There’s no more motivated person than the candidate wanting to close the job offer,” he said.

Cassimus and Saini were speaking Sept. 13 during a webinar sponsored by their company.

To contact the reporter on this story: Martin Berman-Gorvine in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tony Harris at

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