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Practical Background Check Considerations

Date Published: June 23, 2023 | Last Updated:September 15, 2023 | By Linda Pophal
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A lot has changed in the world of employment since the pandemic and in light of ongoing talent shortages for certain positions. These shifts are causing employers and their HR advisors to reconsider what they look for—and look out for—when hiring.

“Today, with a limited pool of employees from which to hire, more employers are focusing on a person’s ability to do the job and if they are trainable,” says Timothy Dimoff, founder, and president of SACS Consulting, Inc., a high-risk HR security consulting and training firm. “Employers are looking for responsible people who are able to adapt,” he says. “They are more open to training new hires and to taking chances depending upon a person’s willingness to learn and to work.”

Background Checks Remain Important

Jon Morgan, CEO of Venture Smarter, though, says that he believes the importance of background checking has increased for companies. “Companies may face increased competition in hiring for certain positions, and thorough background checks can help ensure that candidates have the necessary qualifications, experience, and integrity to perform the job responsibilities effectively,” he says.

What employers look for, and look out for, these days is being impacted by a changing employment landscape. For instance:

  • Does the position really require an MA, BA – or even a high school diploma?
  • Is a marijuana drug screen necessary (especially in jurisdictions where the results can’t be used in making an employment decision?).
  • Does a criminal history matter?

What matters will vary from one company to another, and also will be dependent on the role and its interactions with others, but companies are beginning to take a more critical look at requirements they’ve long considered to be “must-haves.”

Educational Degrees

“We’re seeing less emphasis on a formal degree these days, depending upon the type of business,” says Dimoff. “Not having a formal degree is no longer a deal breaker.” However, he says, high school diplomas are still considered to be a requirement in most places. “There are obviously some professions where a formal degree is required, but for retail, industry, factory, etc., there is much more flexibility these days,” Dimoff says.

There are few occupations, outside of those where occupational licensing is required, where degrees reflect true requirements, says Nathan Deily, Chief People Office at nth Venture. “Degrees have, for a long time, connoted a sort of ‘brand value’ for candidates and were used as a proxy for employability and intelligence,” he says. “That’s less persuasive than it used to be.” Still, he says, it’s important to fact-check candidates’ educational claims. “If someone is exaggerating or outright falsifying their academic records, that’s a big red flag,” Deily says.

Experience can be as—or more important—than education, notes Brianna Johnson, an HR strategest, career coach, and President and founder of BCJ Insights, LLC. “For example, if the position requires a bachelor’s degree, somewhere between two to three years of experience in a similar role could be equivalent,” she says. “Many candidates that would be an asset to a team don’t have degrees and shouldn’t be overlooked for that reason alone.”

Marijuana Use

Drug screens, says Deily, “outside of roles where there are specific safety implications—operating heavy machinery, forklifts, driving a truck or using dangerous tools, air traffic control to name a few—aren’t necessary in my view, marijuana screens in particular.”

Dimoff agrees. “Marijuana, while it is a substance that can be abused, is now widely considered the same as alcohol,” he says. “It is legal, and you can use it, but not at work.” Employers continue to screen for drug use, he says. “This is extremely important as it is a safety hazard in the workplace, especially in an industrial setting.” Even if the information gathered can’t be used to make a hiring decision, he says, “drug screenings are important for employee safety and workplace security reasons.”

Criminal History

With 70 million Americans—or one in three adults—having a criminal history, employers are understandably reconsidering just how much that matters.

Candidates’ histories should be weighed strategically, says Johnson. “For example, if a role didn’t require driving and the candidate had a speeding ticket close to 10 years ago but nothing since, there would be no need to reconsider making an offer,” she says. “On the other hand, if a role did require driving and a candidate currently had a suspended license, that would be grounds to consider other candidates.”

It’s important for companies to understand the nature of the role and how a person’s background could impact their ability to do the job.

“Most misdemeanors, for example, should not affect one’s future employment too significantly, unless that person is in a position where the crime casts serious doubt on their trustworthiness to handle sensitive information, finances or property,” Deily says. Felonies can be more complicated, he says, but he adds: “Context is important, as is having a direct conversation with the candidate about the situation.”

“Employers are currently not as focused on misdemeanor convictions these days,” says Dimoff. “Many are also willing to consider a potential employee if they only have one felony.” However, he adds, “there is still a strong focus on violent convictions and multiple felonies, which can deter an employer from hiring.” Ultimately, these decisions depend on the job, he says.

Best Practices

Whatever criteria are important for employers when considering employee backgrounds, Morgan suggests some best practices to follow:

  • Compliance with applicable laws and regulations. “Companies must ensure that their background checking policies comply with applicable federal, state, and local laws, including the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA0, state and local ban-the-box laws, and other relevant regulations,” he says. “It’s crucial to review and update background checking policies regularly to ensure compliance with the latest legal requirements.”
  • Consistency and fairness. Policies should be consistent and applied uniformly to all candidates to avoid any perception of bias or discrimination.
  • Risk assessment and due diligence to ensure that policies consider the nature of the job, industry-specific requirements, and potential risks associated with the position, as well as the level of access to sensitive information or company assets.
  • Privacy and data security. “Companies should ensure that appropriate measures are in place to protect the privacy and security of candidate information, including compliance with relevant data protection laws, data encryption, and secure storage practices,” Morgan says.
  • Communication and transparency. It’s important for companies to clearly communicate their background check policies and obtain candidate consent before conducting background checks. Candidates should also have the opportunity to review and dispute background check results.

Background checks are an important part of talent acquisition and candidate screening. Regularly reviewing and considering the relevance of background check policies, though, can help ensure that companies are using relevant and appropriate criteria when screening candidates. That benefits both candidates and companies.

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