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The Background on Background Checks

It’s time to talk about a somewhat sensitive subject: Pre-Employment Screening, also known as Pre-Employment Checks, Candidate Background Checks or Background Investigations. With such titles, the whole process can sound a little intimidating—but it doesn’t have to be.

 For a lot of companies, this is a completely new dimension to their hiring process. They’re not sure where to begin, or whether to even begin. They ask themselves:

  • Do we really need this? Is this really necessary?
  • How can we do it in a legal and ethical way?

Let’s tackle these concerns one at a time.

Scratching the Surface

It’s not uncommon for HR managers to employ a very simple form of screening when considering applicants: the Google and social-media screening. In my experience, approximately 3 out of every 5 employers will check out candidates on social media. About 75% of them turn to Facebook, though it’s also common to include business platforms such as Xing and LinkedIn to get a better idea of who the candidate is.

 So, do they find anything?

What I’ve learned is that a little more than 1/3 of HR managers have found details on social media that have caused them not to hire specific candidates. Of these cases, half the time it was due to inappropriate content online, such as drunken pictures or candidates partaking in illegal substances. Another 1/3 of these same hiring managers found candidates speaking ill of former employers and/or colleagues openly on the web.

So, yes, managers are able to gather some information with a basic search. Information that influences their decision making, even. But is it helpful? Does this really paint an accurate image of the candidate’s ability? Is it fair to the candidate?

There are already ethical questions, but we’re just scratching the surface with this kind of quick search. What if you want to dig a little deeper?

Digging Deeper: Where It Gets Tricky 

Far fewer employers will dig beneath the surface to fact-check the information provided by the candidate, such as their expertise and qualifications. Some cite ethical concerns, while many others simply don’t want to take the time or just don’t know where to begin or where they’re actually allowed to dig.

This gets especially complicated in an international hiring situation. Which law applies, for example, if the employer is located in Germany, the position will be in the Netherlands and the candidate is originally from Russia with work experience also in the US and UK? Now we’re getting into some murky legal waters!

Why Go Through it?

With all these ethical and legal issues, why bother?

About 3/4 of the candidates I encounter fib about how much time they spent in a specific position, sometimes covering up a period of unemployment or fun foreign travel—which they’ll sometimes call “foreign (language) studies.” (Though Seuss does believe that travel can be valuable, it’s better to be honest about these experiences.)

Furthermore, based on my background in employment screening, 10% of candidates will “optimize” job title(s) for specific positions they have held with a former employer. For example, a “consultant” position becomes a “manager” or “team leader” position. Easy to pull off.

Another 5% of candidates that I screen will inaccurately represent their qualifications (sometimes even by manipulating original certificates and documents). This is a serious problem, especially given that only about 1/3 of all employers actually ask for original documents to verify the copies provided by the candidates.

Despite all this, to my knowledge, usually a smaller percentage (around 5%) of employers get in touch with the references provided by the candidate.

How does an employer verify whether their applicants are being honest with them without wasting too much time and, more importantly, without getting into trouble?

How to Play It Safe?

Laws vary by country, and certain types of checks are possible in specific countries and under certain national laws, while in other countries you cannot engage in these same background checks at all.

For example, drug tests and criminal-record checks are a legal and common practice in, e.g., the United States, but they are illegal in, e.g., Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

In addition, in some countries (such as Germany) you have to have a candidate’s written consent to perform a pre-employment screening. Without this written consent you can still check some details, but your background-check measures are very much limited. In general, it is not permitted to investigate areas—e.g., the candidate’s political or sexual orientation—that have nothing to do with the actual position the candidate applied for.

How do you work within this uneven system to verify you are hiring trustworthy individuals? Social media can be useful, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. On the other hand, really intense digging can get you into legal trouble. Which is why I recommend calling in a little expert help.

There are consultants who specialize in this issue and can walk you through the maze of red tape. If you plan to do it on your own, though, read extensively and proceed carefully!

Written by Sven Leidel, Partner at Privatimus (Hamburg, London)