Know how to do background checks

The need to check the background of job applicants couldn’t be more evident, yet it is often neglected. It may be seen as extra paperwork, considered an unnecessary cost or even, to the manners-obsessed British, it may simply represent a question too far. But it is vital.

According to George Elkington, business development director at HR, payroll, pensions and reward specialist NorthgateArinso: “Unless you conduct thorough background checks, there could be public embarrassment, legal repercussions and, ultimately, financial loss”. And Elkington adds: “It is vital to protect yourself, your company and the future employee by making sure candidates are who they say they are.”

Be prepared

However well planned or thorough your background checking system is, it will be rendered useless if you implement it too late in the application process. You will need a comprehensive system in place and ready to kick-in as soon as you shortlist an applicant.

Checking someone’s background should be an automatic part of the recruitment process, rather than something you do if you think a CV looks a bit dubious. And you should subject all applicants to the same checks. Take nothing at face value, and check even those people who have been recommended to you by friends or existing colleagues. Rather than extra paperwork, consider this groundwork for someone’s time with your organisation.

When putting together a background checking system, decide what factors you intend to check – calling up someone’s last employer just doesn’t cut it these days. And bear in mind that you will have to check different factors depending on where the applicant is from and whether or not they have been working in the UK. Visas will have to be checked, to determine whether or not they have the right to work in the UK. Depending on the nature of the post being filled, you may want to run a criminal check, too.

Read between the lines

Take care when checking references, too. Make sure you and your organisation’s line managers are very clear about what constitutes a good or a bad reference. Become adept at reading between the lines.

For instance, ask yourself why someone has opted not to have their current line manager as referee – it may have more serious implications than a desire to keep their job search confidential.

Elkington recommends thinking through the whole reference-checking process before starting. As he says: “There are major risks around employing someone and then discovering an adverse career history.”

Build a template

It’s also worth putting in place a system for giving references. Just as you solicit them, so your line managers will have to write them. The more consistent, the better. And it’s worth remembering that the quality of references you provide will affect how your peers – and competitors – see your organisation.

As Elkington points out: “It is also important to recognise that you have a strong role to play in providing crucial information about former employees”. Late or incomplete references will delay someone else’s recruitment process, and will reflect badly on you – and the shoe may well be on the other foot some day, with you reliant on the same company for information.

Consistency and having a good system in place are key to background checking. Above all, be thorough, and always plan ahead.

Expert’s view: George Elkington, business development director, NorthgateArinso

What are the biggest challenges?

 Beyond the obvious challenges of getting thorough enough information about the candidate and dealing with the volume of data you need to gather through the year, there are other challenges around staying on the right side of the law and working out what you’ll do if you receive adverse information about a potential employee.

Providing references has its own challenges – if you say too much about someone, you risk exposing yourself to legal retribution if the ex-employee feels your reference hampered their attempts to find another job.

What should you avoid?

  • Avoid relying on just the reference from the candidate’s previous employer. A thorough background check involves checking multiple sources.

  • Avoid hiring the candidate until the background checking process is complete. 

  • Avoid leaving it until later in the process to ask the candidate if they have had an adverse career history.

  • Avoid giving or taking up references over the phone. 

Top tips

  • Obtain the candidate’s consent before embarking on the process.

  • Use multiple data sources in combination – for instance, a minimum of two employer references, identity verification and criminal record checks.

  • Think through the reference-checking process from beginning to end.
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