Workplace Culture

How Many People Fail Background Checks?

By Staff Report

Jan. 16, 2013

Dear Screen Test:

There are no national or official governmental statistics on the number of applicants who fail pre-employment background tests. However, various background firms maintain their own numbers. In addition, various organizations publish their annual criminal “hit rates,” showing how many applicants subject to background screening had criminal records or other discrepancies. Background firms obviously benefit by pointing out to employers the dangers and pitfalls of hiring without checking an applicant’s background.

On the one hand, these figures confirm why background checks may be critical to certain employers. Without a system of pre-employment screening, it is almost a statistical certainty that an employer will at some point hire someone who brings serious baggage and the potential to create a legal and financial nightmare.

On the other hand, as with all statistics, these reports should be carefully reviewed. For example: One common statistic notes that a large percentage of applications contain material fraud, omissions or misrepresentations. However, it is usually a judgment call to decide where to draw the line between applicants putting themselves in the best possible light, as opposed to actual fraud.

Another area that requires a closer look is criminal hits. First, not all criminal records come as a surprise to employers. Many employers are still willing to hire someone for an appropriate position, providing the applicant was not dishonest during the application process. In fact, certain industries by nature of their workforce are more likely to draw upon a pool of potential applicants who may tend to have higher levels of past criminal conduct. Examples might be construction or firms that provide employment for entry-level workers.

As a result, employers need to carefully define what they mean by “failing” a background check. For example, just because a criminal record is found does not mean the applicant hid it or failed a background check. An applicant may well have self-revealed the criminal record already and the purpose of a background check is to merely confirm what the applicant reported.

In addition, not all criminal records are so serious that it would necessarily affect job consideration. Another issue is whether the “failure to pass” is, in fact, a failure. For example, a person may have been a victim of identity theft—thus, even though a crime is committed in the person’s name, the person in fact did not have a criminal conviction.

The rate of failing background checks may also depend upon the industry as well. Certain industries may have a higher rate of “hits” on criminal searches than others, by virtue of the nature of the job, the pay scale and the available population to fill the job. If you are experiencing a 97 percent pass rate and suspect it is too good to be true, consider these possibilities:

  • You could be utilizing a number of best practices that tend to discourage applicants with something to hide, such as a very well-thought-out pre-hiring process that eliminates potential applicants with problems. Employers who utilize certain best practices, such as a careful application review, good interview techniques and calling past employers, often find that they encounter fewer problems when performing background checks.
  • Second, the particular workforce may statistically be less likely to encounter problems. For example, a biotech firm hiring those with doctorates may well find that it has a lower rate of criminal hits compared with a firm that hires a more general workforce.
  • Third, you may need to examine if the screening process is effective at obtaining the necessary information and that you are not receiving “false negatives” (i.e., applicants with criminal records being reported as clear). If that is a concern, the best approach is to reinvestigate a random sample of applicants with another firm. As in any outsourced HR service, it can be useful to occasionally audit the efficiency of a service provider.

It is difficult to draw firm conclusions from the statistics without knowing the search methodology. Depending on how the searches were conducted, it is possible in fact that such annual statistics may even understate the number of criminal records applicants had. The most accurate criminal-record searches are done by accessing information directly from the county courthouse level, either by going to the court, or by use of the court computer system that is the functional equivalent of going to the courthouse. Databases on the other hand, although much wider in scope, are not nearly as accurate, do not have all courts or jurisdictions, may not be up to date or may contain insufficient identifiers. To the extent any searching was done by the use of databases, the numbers could potentially be understated.

The bottom line: Statistics on criminal “hits” and failed background checks are an excellent reminder that employers need to be careful in hiring. However, as with most statistics, there is more to the story.

SOURCE: Les Rosen, Employment Screening Resources, Novato, California

LEARN MORE: Employers are conducting fewer credit and criminal background checks on prospective employees now compared with two years ago, according to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management.

The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.

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