Simply telling an employment screening company that you want a criminal record search as a part of your employment screening package is comparable to telling a chef that you’d simply like a steak. The chef needs details if you want to get the meal you expect.

A common scenario we encounter when HR professionals first contact us, is that their current screening provider never really evaluated their needs before initiating a pre-employment screening package on their applicants. We often find that the scope of the criminal record searches they’re receiving, is very different from what they thought they we’re purchasing. The result is a far less effective screening package and a much higher risk of missed records. In essence, they’re paying for sirloin but getting served hamburger.

It can certainly be complicated to determine the best type of criminal record search (or combination of searches) to perform in order to get the most relevant results. If you understand the basics, it becomes far simpler to ask for the right services. The principal factor that should be taken into account is the type of work the employee will be conducting: eg: physical labor, management, sales, financial, IT, or working with children/elderly.


Applicant “A” is going to be working with the elderly or children. In this situation it’s essential to check for sex offender records and complaints from the the Department of Health and Human services. A Nationwide Criminal Record and Sex Offender Search would be a cost effective starting point. A comprehensive Nationwide Criminal Record Database Search will include both a multi-state sex offender registry search and the department of Human Services Exclusions List. Check with your provider to be sure. Budget permitting, (and strongly suggested) County Criminal Record Searches should be added based on residence history to locate other types of criminal records. While Nationwide Criminal Record Searches offer a broad view of criminal records across the nation and often store 500 million plus archived criminal records, they still have many holes in their coverage. Aspects of the data, such as the sex offender registry, can truly be considered nationwide. However, when it comes to misdemeanor and felony records, not every county contributes data to these searches. In fact, most counties do not directly contribute. The information is gathered from those counties which are accessible digitally, plus several state repositories, department of corrections records, government agencies and other public record sources. A good Nationwide Criminal Record Search provides a great bang for the buck. In spite of its name, a Nationwide Criminal Record Search should never be considered a complete search of criminal records throughout the country.

Applicant “B” is applying for a comptroller position with a medium sized company. He will have access to all of the company’s financial information and other confidential data. A Nationwide Criminal Record Database Search, County Criminal Record Search and State Repositories could all come back as NO RECORD FOUND even though this person had committed embezzlement at another company and was just released from federal prison. This is because the federal courts are a completely separate court system with separate records. A Federal Court Record Search would be vital for persons in positions with access to confidential company data, signatory power, or upper level management. Only eight percent of all criminal records will be found at the federal court system, though cases that do exist are typically quite serious in nature. Budget permitting, a Nationwide Criminal Record Search and County Criminal Record Searches based on residence history should be added to cover the ninety two percent of non-federal criminal records which may reveal additional crimes.

Applicant “C” is applying for a warehouse position where he will operate a forklift and prep merchandise for shipping. A Federal Criminal Record search would NOT disclose this applicant’s behavioral tendencies as told by his repeated convictions for aggravated battery, disorderly conduct, possession of a controlled substance, DUI, and theft of property. A County Criminal Record search based on residential history would be the most appropriate search to locate common behavioral crimes handled by local police. County criminal records are considered the “bread and butter” of criminal record screening for employment purposes. This is because the searches are usually conducted on site at county courthouses, where the information is very thorough and up to the day accurate. Budget permitting, a Nationwide Criminal Record Search should be added as a broad safety net for additional criminal records that originated outside of the applicant’s residence history.
What about Statewide Criminal Record Searches?
Statewide Criminal Record Searches are one of the most misunderstood and frequently overrated types of criminal record searches. In part because of how the states operate their state repositories, and in part because of how different screening companies define a Statewide Criminal Record Search.
Depending on the applicant screening provider, the term “Statewide Criminal Record Search”can imply any one of three searches:

    1. BEST OPTION(in a limited number of states): A search of the states designated repository often controlled by the State Police, Bureau of Investigation, or Department of Law Enforcement.
    2. A search of a proprietary database that scans records from several sources such as sex offender registries, department of corrections, and any available counties within that state. The downside to this type of Statewide Criminal Record Search is that the county coverage may only include a few counties from the entire state, or the information may only be updated periodically. When using this type of search you should ask your provider for a full coverage detail that lists sources of data and update frequency. If your provider states that this information is confidential, find a new provider.
    3. WORST OPTION: Department of Corrections records are limited to convictions in which the offender served time in a state correctional facility. In many cases, that means that the sentence had to be for more than a year. Less than a one year sentence can result in time served at a county jail depending on the jurisdiction, inmate population, etc. In either case, these searches exclude almost all misdemeanors and many felonies. With plea agreements, house arrest, or other programs which reduce actual time served, even serious repeat offenders may not have been handed a prison sentence of a year or more.

Unfortunately, only a few states have excellent state criminal record repositories that are accessible and cost effective in terms of employment screening. Most states lack either the technology, accessibility, or accuracy to be used as an effective criminal record screening tool, in which case County Criminal Record Searches based on residence history are a far better option.

Illinois: The IL State Police offer a consolidated Statewide Criminal Record Search that (in theory) covers the entire state and dates back to 1950’s in some cases. However, the search is not a practical tool for most screening agencies as the Illinois State Police does not operate like a business that has a responsibility to fulfill it’s clients needs with optimal service. They operate more like a government agency (think DMV). We (the screening agency) might receive our search results back in a day, but we also might not receive the results for six weeks. We won’t know the reasons why(other than “it’s under review”), and if any bit of information is not exact (say the birthday on record was one day off) the result will be returned as NO RECORD FOUND. The lack of consistency and risk of missed records prevents this statewide search from being a viable option in most cases. Similar scenarios apply to many states, which is why your screening provider should advise you when a statewide criminal record search is a good or bad option. When they do recommend the use of a statewide criminal record search, they should disclose the type of search they utilize and details on the data.

Questions on this or any information on applicant background screening services, please feel free to contact us at: 888.578.8600 x113 or