Are You Checking a Box—or Really Checking? Background Screening Beyond the Basics

You know the basics. I don’t need to tell you that screening is important, to protect your brand, your people, your customers. You may even know that rules vary from state to state—sometimes even by city. However, do you really know what’s in your background check? Are you sure you are getting the information you need to make a good hiring decision? There are six flags I want to make sure you are on the lookout for.

Why the Basics Are Not Enough

First, though, it’s important to understand why Background Screening 101 is not enough. As you get comfortable with the basics of background screening, it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming what you already know is all there is to know. That technology can simplify all the complexity of our industry without compromising quality or compliance. That is a mistake.

The raw materials of the background check business are messy. Seven-year-old arrest records from county courthouses, motor vehicle history, endless varieties of drug tests and health screens… and imagine the chaos from an arrest record with a typo. There is a lot of opportunity for error.

People are messy too. One person may be known by many different names during their life, often for the most unobjectionable of reasons. Americans move back and forth across the country, and spend time in jurisdictions that aren’t necessarily their official residences. Many people have the exact same name, or names that are awfully similar.

For all of these reasons, it is too easy to find yourself checking a box without really checking—and opening yourself, your team, and your customers up to risk. Here are some warning signals to heed on your way to a screening program you can trust.

Six Background Screening Flags

  1. “Instant” check. If you see an instant check, it is likely a quick database check.  Database checks serve a purpose (see below), but they have significant gaps. As a result, you are at risk of missing something—and if an issue is found, they may not be able to validate the information. Without proper validation you know something is in the files but probably not what it is—it could be nothing or it could be a big, big deal.
  1. “National criminal database” search. This sounds good—exhaustive, even—but the concept is a myth. A single, national database containing all the criminal records in the United States does not exist.. No database covers every county, and some databases don’t even cover every state. The result is incomplete, sometimes outdated information, and the potential for false positives. 

Don’t get me wrong. Multi-jurisdictional criminal databases serve an important purpose. They are often a logical starting point for a search, as they can help expand the footprint of the search beyond just address history. However, a conscientious screening provider will supplement a database search by going straight to the source to verify the information. The courts remain the most authoritative source of criminal records. Do not rely on a “national criminal database” search alone.

  1. AI-powered search only. Artificial intelligence is powerful and should be harnessed. AI-driven technology can make background screening faster and more efficient and reduce the possibility of manual errors. However, it can only be one part of a much broader background screening program. Screening providers need to implement rigorous verification and QA processes, salting and scrubbing data to be as confident as possible that they are reporting results on the right candidate. They also need to have controls in place to avoid sharing data that is not allowed by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) or other regulations.

And it seems old-school analog, but to review questionable results… you need real live human beings. Machine learning models can make mistakes that humans have a hard time anticipating.

  1. Dependence on third-party criminal data. Make sure your provider has direct digital access to court records. Otherwise you are dependent on the court being open—and actually sending someone in. As we saw this spring, there are times when courts are just closed… even, in this unusual year, for weeks on end. In more normal times, you do not want to be at the whim of opening hours or days off. This may seem like solely a turnaround time issue, but it can lead to a quality issue. When courts are closed, providers without integrations may steer you toward skipping checks for now or relying more heavily on a database check. If you are ever presented with this option—trading off safety for speed—this is an enormous flag, and a tradeoff you simply do not need to consider

Criminal records data is at the heart of our industry, and the supply chain for this data is the cornerstone of quality, speed, and reliability. Stripe does not outsource API management to a third party. Starbucks does not outsource its coffee roasting. CRAs like Sterling limit reliance on third-party data as much as possible for criminal background checks.

That said, a strong partner network is beneficial for specialized screening tasks that require focused expertise built over time. These could include building address history from an SSN trace, searching motor vehicle records, or performing electronic ID verification. Depth of knowledge matters here and I recommend a provider partnering with subject matter experts rather than a single provider spreading themselves too thin through vertical integration, which can cause quality and innovation to suffer.

  1. Generalists. Screening needs vary quite a bit from industry to industry. If you’re hiring hourly drivers, for example, you will need to check motor vehicle records. You may want ongoing MVR monitoring so you are alerted if a driver’s license is revoked or another issue arises. If you are in Finance or Healthcare, you may have to do fingerprinting or run specific licensing checks. Often these needs are regulatory requirements. To develop a “just right” screening program, make sure you find a partner such as Sterling, who knows your industry and can help advise on complex considerations and constantly evolving regulations—even at the local level.    
  1. Data that is not compliant to use. It is a huge red flag if your screening provider routinely sends you data that you cannot use. As an example, a few years ago the state of Pennsylvania sued CRAs and their clients for including summary offenses as part of the background check, which were then used in hiring decisions, in contradiction of state law. You want to make sure as regulations change, your provider’s platform emphasizes compliance in its design.. 

A “background check” means different things to different people.—many of the checks out there are superficial at best. To develop a program you feel confident in, keep an eye out for the flags above. Look for background checks that use primary source data and aren’t just lobbed over the wall at you with no support or expert guidance. And for goodness’ sake, use one that is trusted by and integrated with Fountain—that will make your organization vastly more efficient and keep candidates happy along the way.

To learn more about how Sterling can improve your background screening program or to connect with the author, drop us a line and one of our subject matter experts will be in touch with you. 

About the author

David Bloom is the General Manager of Sterling’s Gig, Volunteer, and Consumer groups, where he is responsible for P&L, strategy, sales, marketing, product development, and team member success. Sterling, a global leader in background screening and identity services, has partnered with Fountain to provide a seamless and integrated solution.

Previously, David was Head of Product at Wirecutter, an acquisition of The New York Times. He also served as Vice President of Product Strategy at Dow Jones, and founded his own API startup. David was included in Entrepreneur’s “Brilliant 100” list, and was on Business Insider’s list of the 100 most interesting people in the NYC tech scene.

David holds a BA degree from Bates College and an MBA from Cornell University.

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Please note that Sterling is not a law firm. The material available in this publication is for informational purposes only and nothing contained in it should be construed as legal advice. We encourage you to consult with your legal counsel to obtain a legal opinion specific to your needs.