How to do hiring background checks when you’re the Human without Resources

Tom Quinn
Tom (he/him) is a growth marketing manager at Snagajob helping small businesses find hourly workers.

This is the dilemma that employers of hourly workers face—balancing the need for due diligence in vetting applicants with the need to win in a competitive labor market. And if you’re a business that doesn’t have an in-house HR team, dealing with hiring issues can be a huge stressor.

Background checks are important, important and also important

Employers have an obligation to foster a safe and productive work environment for employees. The wrong new hire can disrupt it all. A poor job fit can alter a team’s rhythm and flow; a poor culture fit can cause conflict and lower morale. Thorough background checks help a hiring manager rule out the wrong applicants and focus on the right ones. They can also protect workers from people who might be more problematic than just taking too many breaks or liking bad music—the ones capable of nefarious behaviors, such as theft or violence.

You also owe it to your customers (and the general public) to do the proper vetting—so they receive the best service possible and aren’t made vulnerable to being harassed or harmed in any way. Ultimately, performing background checks is good for your business. It helps lessen the risk of negative reviews, bad press, financial loss, negligent hiring lawsuits and other legal troubles.

 Understanding the basics

When it comes to hiring, there are laws in place to avoid discrimination and protect privacy. Most of these fall under the purview of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), and will dictate what you (and any third party you use) may and may not be able to do when vetting applicants. Also, the states in which you employ workers may have specific laws you must follow.

In its simplest terms, an employer background check is when an employer confirms the information a job candidate has provided on an application, a resume or in interviews in order to uncover any potential issues. The goal is to make the best hiring decisions possible. A hiring manager may run checks on an applicant’s previous work history, criminal and driving records, academic credentials, credit score/history and more. A HireRight 2019 survey of HR professionals in the U.S. and Canada revealed that 71% of organizations say they have uncovered issues as the result of a background check that they wouldn’t have otherwise.

Hire Right Employment Screening Benchmark Report | 2019

While performing background checks isn’t rocket science, it can be complex. There’s a lot to know. Here are a few tips to get you started:.

  • Be consistent in how you screen applicants. You can’t request specific information on a candidate but choose not to with another candidate applying for the same role. This could be considered discriminatory. It’s a smart move to have a standardized practice in place to ensure all applicants are treated equally. 

  • Always get written consent from the applicant to perform a background check prior to doing any checking. 

  • If investigating criminal records, employers can search convictions but not arrests. Criminal record checks can be tricky and using the information to make employment decisions could violate certain laws. To protect your business, it may be worth consulting an attorney.

  • Only screen for the information that’s relevant to the role and your specific industry. For example, if you’re hiring for a delivery driver, running a motor vehicle record makes sense. But if you’re hiring for someone to work behind a counter all day, this would be unnecessary and invasive. Being more focused (and not performing irrelevant checks) can speed up your process and save you money on fees. It may be useful to compile a reference list of the background checks you need for each of the roles you need to fill.

For your company, if you’re the Human without the Resources, there are basically two options for performing background checks. You can pay an outside company/consultant to do the work, or you can do the checks yourself. The best option will depend on how much time, expense and risk you’re willing to invest.

Option 1: Use a third-party consumer reporting agency

Running lean, cutting costs and making do are traits shared by most small businesses. So it’s not surprising that some companies view a background check service as a not-so-necessary expense. But it’s worth considering what the costs of not using the service could be. Performing background checks can be complicated and a compliance minefield. The consumer reporting agencies (CRAs) that get paid to do this work are experts and can ensure everything is done precisely and legally. You should only work with accredited firms that are recognized as FCRA-compliant. Attempting things on your own and getting it wrong could expose you to fines, lawsuits and reputational damage to your business. Another thing to consider is the value of your time. Can you afford to manage the background checks while juggling your other business responsibilities?

Last month, Fundera, a firm specializing in HR for small business, announced its “15 Best Background Check Companies for 2020.” This list includes a number of automated, online services that allow you to perform some or all of a background check on your own for a fee. One company in particular, Background Report, provides an online service designed to be inclusive. Candidates can see the results of the screening, provide feedback and dispute or clarify them if needed. This efficiency can speed up the process, benefiting both businesses and job seekers. The list also features operations that provide a more full-service experience. If you think using a CRA may be right for you, these 15 companies are a great place to start.

Option 2: Do it yourself. Pay nothing.

If a pay model doesn’t appeal to you, you can conduct your own free background checks using DIY online tools. Keep in mind that currently, there isn’t a free one-stop source that can provide all the information you will need. You’ll have to use multiple sources to piece together a profile of an applicant. Also, the information you uncover may not be as accurate and comprehensive as you would get using a professional service.

Much of the information you will need is public record and can be accessed on the web. A good place to start is with a Google search. Enter the candidate’s name in quotation marks to begin. You can then narrow your results by adding search terms pulled from a resume—things like home address, college name or former employer. Another potential source is NETR Online, which offers access to state and county databases.

Social media sites, including LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, may be useful as well. While it’s legal to find out more about applicants through their social profiles, it is controversial, and the practice has been declining. To avoid any questions of hiring discrimination (related to race, gender, age, etc.), perform this search later in your vetting process.

If a candidate has a professional website, you can look up the corresponding web domain or IP address and find information that may be relevant.

Public court records may offer up some specifics regarding a candidate’s criminal and financial history. The National Center for State Courts can help you find felony and misdemeanor convictions. To be thorough, you should search every state the person has lived in, down to the county or city level. PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) can provide bankruptcy records and other data—there is a small charge for each page of case information.

Other criminal information may be accessible through the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database (NCIC), which is part of the agency’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Whether you are allowed to tap into this data will depend on the specific nature of the work (industry sector) your company does and the roles you staff. For instance, if your business employs people to work with children, the elderly or persons with disabilities, you would be granted access to check your applicants. You can also check to see if someone is a registered sex offender using the U.S. Department of Justice’s Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website.

Another action you can take on your own is to follow up on referrals an applicant provides. While some places of employment limit what information they will disclose, others have no restrictions. Being able to confirm an applicant’s former employment and talk with the managers and coworkers about the candidate’s work and character is an excellent way to assess the person you are considering.

And finally, when you’re doing your own background checks, you’re kinda flying without a net. If ever you’re uncertain about how to proceed, it’s worth it to call in an attorney to guide you. It’s probably not a bad idea even if you are certain.