Pre-Employment Background Checks: Everything You Need To Know

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5 September 2023

Pre-Employment Background Checks: Everything You Need To Know

Background checks are becoming increasingly important to ensure you hire the right people and to protect your company from liability. While at one time a few phone calls to previous employers may have been sufficient, today background checks can involve everything from credit checks to drug testing.

Before you start

Any background check requires consent from the potential employee. Both notification of the background check and assent from the employee should be in writing. If you find anything that might prevent you from hiring a candidate, you must disclose that information to the candidate and provide them with a copy of the report.

Your background checks must not be discriminatory and there is a simple way to avoid this. Avoid accusations of discrimination by requiring the same checks of every potential employee regardless of their background, ethnicity, or gender.

There are companies which specialize in background checks. These companies can advise you on best practices and often have access to specialized information and sources. They can also save you time.

Timing Matters

There are two stages in the hiring process where you may want to consider a background check. The fist is prior to hiring a candidate. The second is as a condition of employment in which they must “pass” the background check in order to secure employment (also referred to as a conditional job offer). The latter allows you to hold on to a potential good employee but also allows you the time to ensure they are everything they appear to be. It is also a good idea to include a probationary term clause in the offer to hire which will allow you to complete background checks and assess an employee. If either is unsatisfactory, you are then able to let the employee go. Three months is the generally accepted probationary contract term and complies with most legislation in Canada and the U.S.

The components of your background checks will vary according to the position you are hiring for and potential risks and liabilities you are hoping to avoid. There are also legislative restrictions you must be aware of and comply with.

Of course, you will want to start by verifying the information the candidate has supplied to you.This information is often crafted to put the candidate in the best light and doesn’t always tell you everything you need to know. As with most background check information, confirm with the employee that you have their permission to verify their information.

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Verify A Candidate's Education

A photocopy of that impressive degree is probably not enough. You can verify your candidate’s educational background with college and university registrars and you can also request that the candidate have official transcripts from the university or college sent directly to you.

Verify A Candidate's Certifications and Licenses

Again, these should be verified. Most are a matter of public record but again, licensing bodies will often forward official documentation to employers if requested by a candidate.

Contact A Candidate's References

Contrary to popular opinion, most people can and will reveal information about former employees when contacted directly. This information is critical in assessing whether a candidate is the right fit for your organization or more importantly, if they represent any risks you need to be concerned about. If nothing else, you will be able to find out if the responsibilities and achievements they touted on their resume match their employment history.

A Look At Specific Background Checks

For many employers, simple verification of the information provided on a resume isn’t enough. Employee theft is a legitimate area of concern as is safety, particularly with respect to drug and alcohol use on the job. Here is a list of some of the additional common background checks and the regulatory bodies that weigh in on them.

Criminal Records

State laws will typically restrict how far back you can go and what specific criminal records are available to you, but this is a frequently requested component of a background check. (Learn more in Court Rulings in Background Checks: What Rulings Matter Beyond Guilty or Not Guilty?). However, it should be used judiciously. For example, arrest records are considered irrelevant for denying employment, but criminal convictions are considered as evidence of criminal conduct and a potential reason to refuse employment. TheEqual Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has also weighed in on this practice. Specifically, it insists that criminal record checks are applied consistently and evenly to all potential employees and that they do not unfairly discriminate against people because of race or disability. To meet the requirements for denying a candidate a job based on their criminal record you should ensure you are screening criminal records based on the nature of the crime, the time elapsed and the nature of the job you are hiring for.

Credit Checks

Credit checks are commonly used for both new hires and candidates for internal promotions. Credit checks include candidate addresses, incurred debts, and payment history, including any defaults on loans. They can also include identity confirmation, important information now that identity theft is becoming increasingly more common. Most states allow credit checks as part of a background check, but some have restrictions limiting how they can be used. These statutes limit the use of credit checks to deny employment to jobs that specifically provide the candidate with control over large sums of money. The EEOC is also involved with ensuring credit checks do not discriminate against specific groups of people.

Military Records

You can access the rank, salary and any awards that may have been given to a potential employee, but you cannot refuse to hire because that employee may be called up to active duty.

Driving Records

Most driving records are public and easily accessible to employers. That said, this is relevant information only for employees who might be in safety-sensitive positions or responsible for driving company vehicles or equipment.

Medical Records

You will not be allowed access to a candidate’s medical records under any circumstances. You can, however, request a medical assessment for potential employees, assuming you make this a requirement for every new employee applying to a specific job. (Learn more in Pre-employment Medical Exam Legal Issues Employers Need To Understand).

Drug Tests

Pre-employment drug testing is legal and hiring can be contingent on the candidate passing mandatory testing. State laws vary regarding when and how employers can screen for drug and alcohol use. In the case of Department of Transportation (DOT) covered employees, drug and alcohol testing is mandatory for new employees. The important thing about all pre-employment drug testing is that is done consistently with all candidates and that consequences are applied with equal consistency.

The End Result

Whether you do it yourself or hire a specialist, a comprehensive, well-designed background check can ensure you hire the best people for your company.