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Background check mistakes you may not realise you're making - and how to avoid them

By Steve Smith, Managing Director EMEA of Sterling, global leader of background and identity services

August 9 2019 - As a fundamental part of the recruitment process for many organisations, background screening continues to play a growing role in the hiring landscape. With a rapid rise in fake qualifications, fraud, and technology that enables wrongdoing, there really is no substitute for a quality background screening program. However, there is a degree of complexity when it comes to conducting these checks that many companies are unaware of, leading them to inadvertently make mistakes. Unfortunately, the ramifications of these errors can potentially be disastrous. Here's some of the most common ways companies are putting themselves at risk, and how they can overcome them.

Compliance is key - create a plan

Compliance with the law is key when it comes to screening, and all steps must be taken to ensure your company is acting within the law. Therefore, HR professionals should make implementing a well thought out, consistent program their top priority. This policy should clearly outline the objectives, process and types of background checks for each position, and how the results of these checks will affect hiring decisions. The necessary checks needed will vary hugely from sector to sector, meaning that having a defined plan for each role can be crucial.

In all cases, if a company is found to be non-compliant with HR or data protection law, it could face heavy fines, and huge damage to its employer brand. Unfortunately, many companies put themselves at unnecessary risk with a disjointed approach, not realising that allowing a range of siloed individuals to manage separate parts of the recruitment process could do the organisation serious damage.

Social media screening

With the sheer amount of people now using social media, currently 45 million in the UK, screening Facebook, Twitter and other platforms is often a first port of call for hirers. However, this is still a relatively new practice, and there are many grey areas associated with it.

The main issue arises when a candidate claims that a decision was made not to recruit them based upon 'protected characteristics' found on social media. If it can be proved that a decision was in any way due to a candidate's race, religion, sexual orientation, age, disability, sex, gender reassignment, marriage or civil partnership, and pregnancy and maternity, businesses could potentially face legal action based on discrimination.

For this reason, it's important to make sure that protected characteristics aren't influencing your hiring decisions. There are methods to make this process easier. For instance, at Sterling, we run social media background checks that deliberately redact protected characteristics in order to completely remove risk of unconscious biases influencing decisions.

GDPR compliance

HR professionals handle huge amounts of candidate information and personal data while performing background checks, making GDPR compliance a must. However, a number of employers still appear to be confused about their obligations under data protection law, and there is often a lack of clarity around the grounds on which they collect information. The number one concern in this respect is that 'legitimate interest' is always established as the legal basis for processing data. It should be noted that it is difficult for an employer to rely on consent as a legal basis due to the unequal nature of the employer-employee relationship.

Similarly, many organisations fail to have the correct processes in place to provide a candidate with all the information they hold on them if requested. Needless to say, this could result in huge legal problems for businesses.

Suitable criminal record checks

Performing correct criminal records checks can be a source of confusion for many companies. Currently, there are three methods of screening available: basic, standard and enhanced checks. The type of screening used will vary between roles. For instance, an enhanced DBS check can only be undertaken for roles where the candidate would have contact with children or vulnerable adults. Many roles will simply require a basic check. There are plenty of tools available to determine what type of screening is required.

It's also important to remember that any check must abide by the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act (ROA) 1974. This act protects individuals convicted of minor offences from future discrimination, and enables certain convictions to become 'spent' or ignored.

Currently, prison sentences of up to and including four years in length can become spent after a rehabilitation period ranging from 1-7 years. Many employers risk breaching the ROA by asking unlawful or misleading questions about criminal records, so it's important to bear this in mind during the recruitment process.

Finally, it's worth noting that these checks can take some time to complete, especially where there are additional complexities involved such as performing checks overseas. With this in mind, HR teams will need to make allowances in order to ensure this doesn't affect candidate experience or the efficiency of the hiring process.

Consistency with permanent and temporary workforces

Often, there is a huge gap between the level of screening conducted on permanent employees and contract talent. While 89% of companies perform checks on full time employees, just 60% of employers screen their contingent workforce.

This can occur for a number of reasons. Sometimes, companies assume the recruitment agency has already performed checks, while others may not feel they have sufficient resources to screen all temporary workers. However, talent acquisition teams cannot allow complacency to creep in here, as temporary contract workers often have the same access to company resources and information as full-time staff, meaning that any gaps in the screening process could put your organisation at significant risk.

Screening can't be overlooked

Ultimately, background screening is something that can't be overlooked. In terms of staying risk free and making sure you are bringing on board the best talent possible, employee screening can truly make all the difference.

Therefore, companies shouldn't cut corners when it comes to vetting candidates, and should look to not only carry out consistent and suitable checks, but also make sure they are on the right side of the law. By adhering to a few, simple principles, HR professionals can rest easy that they are getting the most out of their screening programs, and minimising all risks to the business.


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