Don’t Get Blindsided With a Nationwide Criminal Search

Public Records Are Not Reliable for Hiring Decisions

When the Acme Staffing Agency hired contract worker John Doe to work for some of their top legal clients, they based their decision on John’s credentials, his high-level recommendations and they even ran a Nationwide Criminal Background Check. The agency placed John in a temp-to-hire position with their top client, a downtown law firm that did $300K in business with Acme Staffing annually. A few months later, John was hired by the law firm in a permanent position.

John was hired for a Controller position and shortly after he started, accounting discrepancies turned up. An internal audit revealed that John was embezzling money from the firm. When John was arrested, the police provided an arrest report indicating that John had been charged with similar white collar crimes. The law firm ordered a comprehensive criminal background check and confirmed the police report – John had a recent prior conviction.

The law firm contacted Acme Staffing and demanded to know why the agency hadn’t informed them of John’s history. “Had you told me this, I would never have hired him!” said the owner of the law firm.

Acme Staffing explained that their background screening company performed a Nationwide Criminal Background check and no records were returned. Because the Nationwide Criminal Background check relies on stored public records – which is often times incomplete due to lax regulations and limited oversight – John’s conviction was never uploaded to the database.

Understandably, the law firm filed suit against Acme Staffing to recover not only the fee they paid the agency, but also for the money John embezzled. Including lost time, a damaged reputation, legal fees and judgement, the lawsuit cost Acme Staffing more than $600,000 and untold future clients.

Do you rely solely on the Nationwide Criminal Background Check for criminal records? Sure – it’s cheap – but remember the adage that you “get what you pay for.”

If so, your clients are being exposed to similar losses. Most importantly, if they are exposed then you are exposed.

The safest approach is to order a Social Security Number Trace and Address History Search, supported with a County Criminal search in the county (or counties) where the applicant has lived during the past seven years. You can then add a Nationwide Criminal Database search to your your screening package – but only to provide supplemental information about any crimes that may have been committed outside the county of residence.

This approach will accomplish two important objectives.

  1. Since all criminal records originate at the county level, it will determine if the applicant has committed any crimes in their county or counties of residence.
  2. Knowing what counties they have lived in can help narrow down and eliminate any false positives that might appear on a Nationwide Criminal Database search. This is not a sure thing, but a very helpful identifier when trying to verify Nationwide Criminal Database records.

The safest and most sensible approach to verify a Nationwide Criminal Database record is to pull the record from the County Courthouse. This is the ONLY way to truly verify if the record belongs to your applicant.

In fact, the Federal Trade Commission, which regulates background screening firms, has held that a pre-employment screening firm is not in compliance with the Fair Credit Reporting Act when it furnishes consumer reports for employment purposes that include negative public record information from stored data (like the Nationwide Criminal Database or Statewide Criminal Database), without first verifying whether the information is complete and up to date.

You can read the FTC opinion letter here:

Here are some suggestions on how to win client business and retain client satisfaction:

  • Your clients rely on you to be knowledgeable about regulatory compliance. Demonstrate your knowledge up front by educating your clients on the differences between a County Criminal Search, which is most reliable and a Nationwide Criminal Database search, which is less reliable.
  • Inform your client that your fee structure includes the cost of reliable County Criminal background checks, which are being used to deliver the safest and most qualified candidates, so they fully understand the value they are receiving.
  • Revise your client agreement to include your position on background checks. Be sure the client reads, understands, and signs when or if you will perform and under what circumstances. Keep this original signed document on file and send the client a copy.
  • Make County Criminal background checks a mandatory business practice. Contract workers represent the best (and sometimes the worst) of what your company has to offer. These contract workers are your product; is your product sound? By screening all applicants with a County Criminal search, you can protect your company from reputation damage or, worse, litigation.
  • Share all screening information with applicants before you place them and advise your applicant that you will be doing so. Provide each applicant with the results and discuss any concerns with your applicant while advising them that, if they are placed, the information will be shared with your client.
  • Have each applicant sign a document advising that they are aware of this practice; if the applicant is not willing to sign the document then it is an obvious red flag not to utilize that person. Additionally, you must have a discussion with your client regarding screening results.
  • Inform client companies of their right to conduct more thorough background screenings. Educate them on how more in-depth searches, such as drug screening, employment verification, and education verification can uncover potential issues not included in your initial screenings.
  • If you decide against mandatory background checks, make sure you present this to your client in written documentation that clearly states background checks are not performed automatically and only at the client’s request.

In these tough economic times with so much competition and few placement or job opportunities, you need to set your agency apart with proper due diligence. In order to survive, your agency needs to cover each client’s back. If you expose your agency to loss, most clients will exploit your exposure with a lawsuit and harm your business with negative referrals – and this will cost far more than a County Criminal background check.

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