BACKGROUND CHECKS 101: WHAT EVERY SMALL BUSINESS SHOULD KNOW

A small business owner in San Diego County told me recently that they were using one of these brand name “Instant Nationwide” background check services that was, in fact, recommended by their liability insurance carrier. When I showed the gentleman on the service’s own website that they search nothing in San Diego County he was naturally upset and alarmed. He said that they had been using the service for years to screen their employees. I asked if he ever got a criminal record on anyone and he said that he didn’t think so. Well, no wonder. The service that he paid for searched no records in San Diego County, ever.

Now think about that. How was he supposed to know? His insurance carrier recommends a company and he wants to do the right thing to protect his business. I think that this business owner could prove that his insurance company was negligent in recommending a company whose services are essentially useless to him.

I have been in this business for 18+ years and worked with such varied clients as the GE Power Systems, the LA Times, the United Nations, the Department of Defense, McDonnell Douglas/Boeing, Mars, Inc., TATA and the National Transportation Safety Board. Through the years I have had many discussions with small business owners and managers all over the country about what they should do and how to proceed with screening their employees and applicants. Based on those talks I have compiled this list of the most common mistakes that small business owners make with regard to this subject.

Mistake #1: Using a cheapie database search. Those Instant Nationwide criminal records checks that you see advertised on the internet and sold for anywhere from $9.95 to $49.95 are not what they say they are. Everybody assumes that they are getting what the name implies; a check of all records nationwide. NOT SO. These are $1 database searches that in most cases are records from the department of corrections in each state, so the info is of felony convictions only. It is important to understand this point

Even worse, in many areas of the country such as most of California, all of Maine, New Hampshire Vermont, Massachusetts, Louisiana, and Montana and Maryland and Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana and Washington D.C and several other states you get nothing at all. You may say, “I am not in any of those areas listed, so it’s OK if I use a database, right?” Wrong. You don’t know where your people are from. They could have lived most of their lives in one of those areas and just moved to your area recently. For more on this subject read my Article: Background Check Buyer Beware. You can find it on my website listed below.

Mistake #2: Assuming that you know the people you hire. We all make this mistake. I’ve done it myself and I do background checks for a living. How crazy is that? One problem business owners have with this is that they are kind of embarrassed to have someone they know submit to a background check, especially at a small Mom and Pop business or a small town business. These employers are the people you see on the news saying, “He was a quiet sort of a fellow that kind of stayed to himself and never gave us no (sic) problems,” after he goes postal and shoots up the place.

If you hire a friend or relative, think about how this looks to your other employees if this person doesn’t have to submit to a criminal, education and/or previous employment check. Believe me, they will notice and they won’t like it.

Mistake #3: Procrastination and not acting at all. I know that as a business owner or manager many, many things are vying for your attention and this is just one more thing you have to worry about. I also know that the cost of doing the background checks is one factor that may slow the process. Check with your liability insurance carrier and ask them if you will receive a discount on your policy if you conduct criminal background checks on all new hires.

One humorous thing that we have found is that there is no perfect sized business. Small business Owner/managers tell me all the time that they are small and therefore can’t afford much OR that they are a growing business therefore it will cost too much to screen all of their applicants.

Mistake #4: Using a poorly worded consent form. You want to use a consent form that covers all contingencies; one that allows you to conduct a background check and, if necessary, a drug test as now, as a part of the pre-employment process AND at any time in the future if the need arises. Here are some examples: As a condition of a promotion you may want to re-check for criminal or civil records. In case of an accident in the workplace, you may want to check for drug or alcohol use. If an employee is now going to be driving a company vehicle you will certainly want to check his/her driving record.

Mistake #5: One of my friends is a cop who checks everybody out for us. This particular mistake is more common with volunteer organizations like churches and other non profits, but it still applies to regular small businesses. The problem with this is that everybody assumes everything. If I were a betting man I would bet that if you fall into this category that you don’t know what is being checked. You just assume that everything is. You would not believe how many people I talk to on an almost daily basis that think that there is somehow some magic government databases that have all of your personal data at the touch of a keyboard. Again, not so.

Find out just what exactly is being checked. Are they checking just your county or your whole state? What if your subject just moved there from another state? How complete is the information? Does it list all misdemeanor and felony arrests and convictions? How up to date is the information? Are they checking maiden or other names? Are you getting a written report to keep in a file and not just a verbal OK? Does the company guarantee its work? Oh, and by the way, if your peace officer friend is checking the NCIC database (FBI files) he/she is almost certainly doing it illegally.

One way to choose a company that you can trust to do your employee and applicant screening is to find one that will answer all of your questions. The internet is full of companies that will not disclose the source of the information that they sell to you. Ask if the information is directly from the courts or from an outside database. Ask how recent is the information and how far back the information is available. Ask if it is searched in person, if necessary and if there is an extra charge for that service. Ask if the courts are consolidated in your state; meaning that you can get all of the info of the county in one place. Ask if your state offers a statewide search. These are easy no-brainer questions for someone who knows what they are doing. If a company can’t answer those questions to your satisfaction, find another company.


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