Employment Background Checks: Minimize Skeletons that Employers Might Find

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by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.


The words of Jay Meschke, president of CBIZ Executive Search, Kansas City, MO, capture the prevailing philosophy about background checks in the job search: "For executives, background checks are so routine in the recruitment process that one would need to question the sanity of the hiring entity that does not perform background checks in this day and age." Resume and credential fraud, Meschke notes, have contributed to a dramatic increase in background checks.


Nick Fishman, chief marketing officer and executive vice president for employeescreenIQ in Cleveland, OH, notes that his firm "finds a 56 percent discrepancy rate between what candidates claim about their past employment and academic credentials and what we find when we inquire."


Employers also conduct background searches to guard against lawsuits filed claiming company liability when an employee causes harm that better vetting might have prevented (because the check probably would have prevented the individual from being hired and causing the alleged harm).


An employer, or more likely, a third-party firm that specializes in background checks, may scrutinize a wide variety of elements in the background-checking process, including federal, state and local criminal proceedings and convictions; federal, state and local civil litigation, bankruptcy court records, magistrate's court records, U.S. tax court records, federal and state tax liens and warrants, surrogate and probate court records, matrimonial and family court records, judgment indices, pending suits, UCC filings, mechanics liens, property records, educational verification, prior employment, corporate/partnership filings and entity filings, fictitious business name indices; regulatory checks including, SEC filings, FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority) records/actions, CFTC (Commodity Futures Trading Commission) records, arbitration records; Department of Motor Vehicles records; professional registration and licensing; local, national, international Internet/media review; general interest, trade, and limited access publications; business databases, including general information, business relationships, and records of stock ownership; federal agencies, including, EPA, FTC, FCC, EEOC, Department of Energy, Federal Home Loan Bank Board, Federal Election Commission; state agencies, including secretary of state, attorney general, casino control, consumer affairs, environmental; and local sources, including city agencies, Better Business Bureau, local law enforcement; reputation inquiries with former employees, associates, employers, and industry sources.


In this vetting process, the employer or investigator attempts to identify misrepresentations or omissions, unreported financial difficulties, illegal or unethical business practices, undisclosed legal proceedings, criminal or regulatory actions, sanctions, debarments or de-listings, and troubled transactional histories.


The issues for candidates include how to prepare for background checks and how to handle them. Experts from background-checking and related firms explain.


Know the red flags in your own background. "Assume that every detail of your background will be uncovered, because it probably will," says Maureen Mack, human-resources consultant with H.R. Principal, LLC, in Walnut Creek, CA. Several background-check experts advise paying a service to conduct a background check on yourself before you begin interviewing so you know what an employer might find. As Craig points out, this process may reveal situations in which someone who shares your name has an unsavory background. While Craig says you can do nothing about this person's red flags, you can let the hiring decision-maker know that while a background check may reveal an issue, the person named is not actually you.


Chris Fabrycki, who worked in corporate functions for years as an executive recruiter and is now owner and HR consultant with Accent Services, LLC, in Warren, NJ, notes that because a significant aspect of the vetting process involves a financial check, ordering a credit check on yourself can help. "I have seen many senior-level finalist candidates with bad credit, which can prompt a stop to the hiring process," she says. The information you'll turn up in a credit check is limited, however, so Fabrycki agrees with the many experts who recommend investing the money in using a reliable company to conduct your own full background check.


Craig also recommends conducting a search for yourself on Google and social-media sites (Facebook, LinkedIn, and similar social and networking sites) and remove any questionable content that you can control. Statistics from ExecuNet's study, Dealing With Your Digital Dirt 3.0, indicate that an overwhelming majority (86 percent) of executive recruiters conduct online searches as part of their background checking, and, as a result, nearly half (44 percent) of these recruiters have eliminated candidates because of something questionable they uncovered. Craig advises setting up a Google e-mail alert for your name so you receive notification every time you are mentioned online.


Eliminate any issues you can. "For a no-surprise background check, the executive should resolve any outstanding disputes or pending items," Craig suggests, noting that reviewing credit reports for discrepancies and ensuring that any legal actions are settled are solid steps toward eliminating troublesome skeletons.


Be scrupulously honest in any paperwork you submit during the interview process. While some executives may feel that completing an employment application is beneath them, many employers require applications for legal reasons. Every background-check expert interviewed for this article emphasized honesty in applications or any other paperwork you are asked to submit as part of the hiring procedure. Mack recalls having to terminate "a really good guy because he lied about something in his background." Mack explains that the issue came up in the background check a few months into his employment (because background checks took longer at that time). Mack says her company would have hired him even if they knew about it, "but we terminated him because he lied on his employment application."


Understand the value of pre-emptive disclosure, recommends Craig. "If there is a 'red flag,' then it is better to disclose it during the interview process, where the issue can be put into context," Craig advises. "Discovering it by surprise in a background check will usually lead to a disqualification."


On the flip side, "many employers will not have an issue with a [problem disclosed during the check] as long as they feel it has no impact on the position," Fabrycki notes. "I would advise candidates to tell the employer prior to the first on-site interview; no sense wasting anyone's time if that employer will have a problem," Fabrycki says.


"Take your chances with the truth," Mack advises. "If they are checking your background, they already want you as a candidate and will probably work with you," she says. "But if you are hiding info, and they find out, you're toast." Barb Poole of Hire Imaging, LLC, points out that this proactive approach can differentiate you from other candidates. "It can also give the recruiter or hiring manager a higher comfort level with you as a candidate, because they know that a reputable company has been retained to certify your credentials and information up front -- a potential big leap in gaining an air of integrity and credibility," Poole says.


Know your rights and protect your security. "The first thing to know is that an employer must obtain your consent before performing a background check," Fishman says, noting that the employer also must divulge what the background check consists of. "If an employer chooses not to extend an offer based on the outcome of the search," Fishman explains "it must notify the candidate of this decision, provide him or her with a copy of the report, and allow him or her the opportunity to dispute the findings." Fishman also cautions applicants to be wary when employers ask for the candidate to pay for the background check, particularly over the Internet. "There have been a number of recent scams in this regard," Fishman says.


Meschke advises candidates to ask how the information is transmitted from party to party vendor to employer. "Assure that the information is encrypted and that Social Security numbers are blacked out in the event the data ends up in the wrong hands," Meschke cautions.


Watch for inaccuracies. A particular value in ordering your own background search is that you may uncover and correct information that is inaccurately reported. "Reporting jurisdictions, municipalities, and credit bureaus are not infallible," Meschke notes. "Mistakes are made. Incorrect information may end up in a person's report due to transposing numbers or using a wrong middle initial in a name search."


"The information found in a search is only as good as the person who entered it," agrees Sandy Glover, president of Gold Shield Legal Investigations, Inc., Ormond Beach, FL. Glover personally contacts the clerk of the court or makes other personal inquiries if the accuracy of a report is questioned.


Final Thoughts on Background Checks

Remain calm and relaxed during the process, advises Certified Protection Professional Philip Farina, CEO of Farina and Associates, Ltd., San Antonio, TX. "Whatever comes up from a pre-employment screening, focus the selection committee toward the positive attributes that you bring to the table. All things being equal, the employment candidate who checks out quickly and accurately may get the position," Farina says.



Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.


Katharine Hansen, PhD, QuintCareers.com Creative Director Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.


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