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Over the past 10 years I have conducted hundreds upon hundreds of background checks. By “background check” I don’t mean the cheap background check your employer has probably completed on you. I am talking about the “leave no stone unturned” background checks that cost clients thousands and thousands of dollars.

As you may imagine, I am a big proponent of conducting background checks, but they are often misunderstood.

Like everything else, they do have problems.

Here are five problems with background checks:

1 Not everything will be found

If you stole lunch money from your friend in the 7th grade, it’s not going to found. Likewise, if you inhaled once at a sorority party in college, that’s probably not going to be found either. This may seem completely ridiculous, but I have been asked about both of these things before.

Background checks rely on public records; things like stolen lunch money records and sorority party attendance and drug inventory are not included. Of course, interviews may reveal some information about you not available in the public record, but interviews are only really conducted with a complete background check with interviews which, more likely than not, is beyond the normal scope of a background check.

2 Databases have errors

Background checks rely on databases that gather information from millions of public records. But these databases have errors.

You will hear hundreds of stories of employees not getting jobs because they have been incorrectly linked to some criminal offense they did not commit. In the other extreme, we have shown that a popular online background check did not reveal a lengthy criminal history.

Errors are obviously are problem, but the bigger problem is the some background check providers rely strictly on databases and do not obtain any source documents from local repositories to confirm the existence of these records, even with serious criminal offenses.

The solution is to utilize a combination of databases and onsite checks at local repositories. The problem is that many providers don’t do this because of cost.

3 Common names are very challenging

Ever try finding some information on John Smith, Michael Williams, Jennifer Johnson or Barbara Jones?

Common names are extremely difficult, in part because most public records are not linked by a unique identifier such as your date of birth or social security number. In some cases you will find that many individuals with the same name are all mixed together or worse, have the same exact name AND middle initial.

Even the most experienced investigators have problems with common names. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. If you want to be comprehensive, you have make your way through thousands of records; a manual, time consuming process.

4 Past performance does not necessarily predict future results

This year’s top-performing mutual funds aren’t necessarily going to be next year’s best performers.The SEC has required the above statement on materials provided by the industry to tell investors that a fund’s past performance does not necessarily predict future results.

This is similar to a background check. Because someone has not committed a crime in the past, doesn’t mean they will in the future. And because someone has filed for Bankruptcy doesn’t mean that they are going to do it again.

Historical bankruptcies, financial difficulties, criminal acts, a litigious past, misrepresentations and regulatory sanctions can be indicators of potential problems down the road.

But while a background check may provide some clues to the future, it’s not a crystal ball.

5 Background checks are fact based material…you make your own interpretation

Background checks by nature are fact-based material, culled from public sources.  Things like whether a person has been involved in lawsuits, if they have any criminal records or have filed for bankruptcy will be included in the report.

Any background check worth it’s weight, will not provide any opinions based on the findings. It is what it is. The records speak for themselves.

The problem is that you have to make your own interpretation. Some white lies on a resume may not mean all that much to you, but they can be an indicator of other deeper lies.

The background check report will not tell you that the person is a compulsive liar, but it will tell you that they falsified their degree and did not put on their resume that they were president of a company that went bankrupt. You need to make your own judgment if you want to be in business with that kind of person.

So there are five common problems with background checks. If you have any questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to leave your thoughts below.

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5 replies
  1. Tim Duncan
    Tim Duncan says:

    Some very good points. FCRA is definitely the way to go for any company. Keep in mind that FCRA is there for the protection of the applicant not the company. Most states only allow 7 years max to go back. More & More state are not allowing credit to be pulled. PI’s make the mistake & increase a companies liability for not staying to the laws. A background is not an investigation for building a case, it is a simple fact finding solution. PI’s use all sorts of databases that are crap. IRB, Lexis Nexis, etc. The NCIC information is only at best 85% accurrate and unfortunately there is information in there that should not be used for employment purposes as you well know. Also the EEOC strongly disagrees with companies that use language like every convicted or trying to scare applicants to giving to much information that should not be used to screen them. Most people reviewing information do not know what to do with it anyway. So get away from scaring people that they should do a PI investigation. There is a Nationwide Background Check data base & with county checks is a good thing. Companies can get all the information your getting the same as you and cheaper than what you would charge them. Most the information is free.

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      Most criminal information is not free. That is completely inaccurate. You find me a “free” database, and I will find you a million holes.

      Absolutely, some of this can be done by yourself. But it’s hard to argue that hiring a qualified professional that does background checks on a daily basis is better than doing it yourself. Is doing it yourself cheaper? In almost every case yes, but doing it yourself has big risks too. Like missing critical information. What’s the real savings then?

  2. Michael Konrad
    Michael Konrad says:

    You do make some very valid points. I have been conducting background checks for almost 17 years. One thing I have learned over that period is that you get what you pay for……not all background checks are equal. If the company you do background checks with is not getting the information from the souce utilizing all the search criteria necessary…i.e. First Name, Last Name, DOB and SSN, then you run the risk of false positives. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) protects indivuals privacy rights and allows individuals to dispute the accuracy of a background check. If the company you utilize for background screenings does not comply with the FCRA stay away.

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