Criminal Background Checks: Myths & Best Practices

If you've been following our blog in "real time," you've likely been reading our series of articles on various criminal history check topics.

Here's a list in case you missed any installments:

Today, we're going to talk about three additional myths as well as some best practices as you fine-tune your employee screening program.

Criminal Record Check Myths

In addition to these seven criminal background check myths, here are three more myths that we encounter regularly.

1. Social Security Number Trace = Social Security Number Validation. FALSE!

The "social security number trace" (sometimes referred to as "SSN trace" or "name and address locator") is a research tool that we use at Good Egg to identify addresses, names (i.e., aliases, aka's), and dates of birth (DOB) associated with a social security number. Various algorithms are employed to determine the output of the SSN trace, including but not limited to combinations containing full, partial, and "wild-card" database searches of first name, last name, DOB, and SSN.

The outcome of the SSN trace will indicate an approximate SSN issue date and location where the number was issued. The SSN trace may also indicate if the SSN appears on the Social Security Death Index (SSDI).

All that said, the SSN trace is not a social security number verification. The search does not confirm that the social security number is associated to the candidate, nor does it confirm that the candidate is eligible to work in the United States.

The only authorized pre-employment method to confirm that a social security number is valid and belongs to a candidate is by requesting consent-based social security verification (CBSV) from the Social Security Administration.

2. A Nationwide Database Search or "Instant Background Check" = A "Full" Criminal History Check. FALSE!

The existence of a true "nationwide criminal history check" is one of the most common, and persistent, myths about criminal background checks.

This myth is reinforced by the myriad "instant background check" providers that pop up on the Internet (seemingly) daily. A google search for "instant background check for employment" quickly shows the lay of the land with promises like, "provides instant results,"  "ensure your company's safety," and "instant background check in 3 easy steps."

The reality is quite a different story…

Various national databases do exist and are regularly used by background screening providers to enhance the scope of a background check by searching for criminal activity outside the subject's address history.

The problem is that many people believe a search of these data sources provides sufficient information about a candidate's behavior to properly inform a hiring decision. THAT IS FALSE.

Here's the truth about a national criminal database search:

  • The search is not comprehensive; data from many jurisdictions does not appear in the nationwide database.
  • Data can be incomplete and/or out-of-date.
  • Updates to the database vary by jurisdiction, and users of the data do not have insight into when data has been refreshed.
  • Data can lack personal identifiers (i.e., full date of birth, middle name) required to match the record to the candidate.
  • Criminal history information obtained from a national criminal database search cannot be used to inform a hiring decision unless that information has been validated at the primary source.

At Good Egg, we do not display the results from the national criminal database to the client. Instead, we use the information we've obtained from the database as a "pointer." Any reportable criminal history information found that closely matches the candidate's name and personally identifiable information (PII) is validated at the primary source, i.e., by processing a county criminal search, to determine if the information is reportable to the client.

3. A Fingerprint-based Background Check = A "Full" Criminal History Check. FALSE!

The Professional Background Screening Association (formerly the National Association of Professional Background Screeners) provides a comprehensive position statement regarding fingerprint-based background checks. We're summarizing parts of it below.

Despite what TV shows like Law & Order tell us, the FBI criminal history database is not the "gold standard." The database is premised on a passive collection system (i.e., jurisdictions are expected to report information to the database; the FBI is not soliciting or actively "pulling" information from the jurisdictions). This can lead to gaps in information and a significant incidence of incomplete and/or inaccurate database records.

The purpose of the FBI database is to aid law enforcement during investigations, not determine eligibility for employment.

While fingerprint-based background checks are a useful tool when conducting background screening, they do not provide a comprehensive history, so they shouldn't be the only tool used for obtaining complete and up-to-date information (especially given there are gaps in the FBI database since many state and local jurisdictions fail to report arrest records or a court disposition to the FBI). 

And keep in mind that you can't legally fingerprint everyone who walks through your door. Many jurisdictions only permit you to fingerprint job applicants for certain occupations in which a criminal history background check is authorized or required under state or local law. An example: if the job requires dealing with a vulnerable population, fingerprinting might be applicable.

Instead, a truly comprehensive screen should use a combination of both private databases and primary source data (such as county, state, and federal repositories). 

Criminal Background Check Guidelines

Here are several criminal background check best practices to keep top of mind:

  • Make sure that all background checks, including criminal history searches, are conducted consistently across the organization. In other words, the same package of services is ordered for each individual applying for a particular position.
  • Understand your obligations, as an employer, under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). This includes initiating adverse action whenever a decision not to hire is based in whole or in part on the outcome of a background check.
  • If conducting criminal monitoring or rescreening—and/or a drug-free workplace program is in place—make sure you communicate clearly with candidates and employees about these programs. Apply policies consistently across the affected areas of the organization. See this post regarding drug testing program best practices.

Working with a reputable vendor can make all the difference!

You already have enough on your plate. Work with a reputable screening vendor that can help put together a compliant, cost-effective, and efficient screening program for your organization. Get in touch with Good Egg soon!

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Madge Patterson

Posted by Madge Patterson

Madge is the Director of Operations at Good Egg. A self-described “operations maven” she has spent the past 15+ years applying her passion for process improvement and optimization to various operations and program management roles in the background screening industry. She is an avid baker who often shares her creations with her Good Egg colleagues.

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