Instant Background Checks: Myth vs Reality

At what point does SPEED compromise ACCURACY?

Many background screening agencies, including ours, love to brag about speedy turn-around-times. After all, that is one of the top concerns of Human Resource Professionals and Recruiters. Pending reports can hold job offers in limbo waiting for the results of the background check.

In response, screening companies throw around terms like “same day“, “24 Hours” and most of all “INSTANT!“. But is an instant background check realistic? Or does speed sacrifice the safeguards of The Fair Credit Reporting Act, therefore putting the employer and the applicant at risk?

The Facts!

We’ve created a very straight forward chart of what employers can expect from a reputable background screening company in terms of Average Turn Around Times vs Best Case Scenario Turn Around Times vs Consumer Beware(“Consumer Beware” meaning unrealistic in terms of completing an authentic search within the timeframe shown.)

How can companies claim they offer instant search results when it’s not always possible?

There are a couple of ways a company can make the claim to have search results that are faster than possible…

  1. The fine print says otherwise:  You may see the big bold words stating that a search offers instant results (for example, a county criminal record search) but the fine print states that instant results are only available in counties that offer fully electronic access. In this case, instant results may occur 35% of the time and take much longer 65% of the time.
  2. The search being conducted isn’t what you’re expecting:  In this situation, liability comes into play. If you select a screening service that promotes (for example) “instant statewide criminal record searches in all 50 states”, chances are they are simply using a nationwide criminal record database and filtering out the results of the states not selected for the search. This is a common practice and a dangerous method of conducting a criminal record search because the client likely believes they are receiving full coverage of the state requested. Nationwide databases do not cover every jurisdiction in every (or any) state. There are many gaps in criminal record coverage which is why nationwide criminal record searches are best used along with county criminal record searches to fill in the gaps based on residence history and to verify records found.
  3. They go through the motions but don’t produce results: Employment and professional reference verifications are an important source of information on a candidate.  These types of verifications require direct contact with an individual most of the time.  A company that guarantees results the same day or in a 24-hour period is going to have a very low rate of success as you obviously can’t force people to respond to an inquiry on your terms.  Realistically, it will take two to three business days to achieve an 80 percent success rate of gathering responses when real people must return correspondence. Trying to force responses with cookie-cutter emails and offshore call centers will reduce your rate of completion drastically.  Often to 40% or less.  These “big box” methods can be disruptive and annoying to the references as well leaving a bad impression of your company.  The best responses are obtained by a phone call from a professional representative followed by a personalized email that references the previous call.     

How do I find out if the company I’m using is conducting searches that best serve our needs?

Ask questions!  At your request, your screening company should provide you a very detailed description of what types of searches they are providing.  “Statewide Criminal Record Search”, or “Nationwide Criminal Record Search” are not descriptions, they are categories or product names.  For example, we provide our clients with a detailed excel spreadsheet, or a 102-page PDF, which outlines every jurisdiction included in our product called “Nationwide Criminal Record Search”.  We also include a description of what each jurisdiction releases, and exactly how often the records from each jurisdiction are updated.  In terms of employment, education or reference verifications you can ask for a summary of the company’s practices that include…

  • Are the verifications contacted by in-house staff or an offshore call center?
  • How often are verifications contacted and by what methods?
  • How many attempts are made to contact a verification before the search is returned as “Unable to Complete”?
  • Do you contact the applicant if the verification is lacking the necessary information to be completed? (Going back to the client for additional data can be time-consuming and a burden to the client’s HR department.)
  • What is your procedure if a referral is unreachable or refuses to provide information?

You are the client and you have a right to know what you are paying for.

Any background screening company that declines, or even hesitates, to provide details on criminal record sources, verification policies or the specifics on any other search type should raise a red flag for your company.  There are many good screening companies out there.  Ask the right questions in the beginning and you won’t need to worry about getting exactly what you’re paying for.

The Bottom Line.

Speed is a nice benefit to have in your background screening process and some searches can be lightning fast. If speed is your top priority however, you’re going to get short-changed on quality and safety. Shortcuts rarely produce benefits in life, and such is true in the background screening industry.  Certain searches REQUIRE research by human eyes and REQUIRE cooperation from third parties. Understanding the time required for real results will prevent you from sacrificing diligence for speed.  

Brad Jones is the Founder and President of SafeScreener.com, a background screening agency that has been providing corporations and government agencies screening services since 2004.  Brad is an active member of the National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS) and serves on the Chicago Chamber of Commerce’s Workplace Well-being Committee.  For more information on applicant screening services, or a free F.C.R.A. Compliance Checklist, please call 888.578.8600 x113 or email bjones@safescreener.com.