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When hiring a new employee, you want to make the best decision possible, and know that you’re hiring the right person for the job. However, when you base your decisions entirely upon the information provided by the applicant, and the references that he or she provides, you may not get the entire picture. After all, it’s unlikely that someone will be upfront about a poor driving history, a criminal record, or financial troubles if they aren’t required to do so.

On the other hand, privacy laws are very strict when it comes to protecting personal data, and it’s quite easy for a well-intentioned employer to stumble upon protected information, to misinterpret information, or to make incorrect assumptions. As a result, the company misses out on a great employee — and could face lawsuits for discrimination or invasion of privacy. Usually, this occurs because the employer makes one of the following mistakes.

Mistake #1: Not Checking the Right Information

Background Check MistakesWith so much information available, it’s easy for an employer to say, “Tell me everything about this person.” However, unless you are hiring for a position that requires the highest levels of security clearance (like a CEO), you probably don’t need to know everything.

Tailor the background checks to the position. If the candidate will be working with money, a credit check is a good idea; if he or she will be working in marketing and not have any access to funds at all, there’s really no need to check credit. Someone who will be driving company vehicles needs a clean driving record, but someone who will only work in the office probably does not need to know that they have been in six accidents in 10 years.

Mistake #2: Relying on Social Media

According to the Society for Human Resources Management, more than three-quarters of all employers look at candidate’s social media profiles when making a hiring decision. Employers claim that they check the profiles as a means of gauging a candidate’s overall character, but the problem is that social media accounts also expose additional information that should not be used in hiring decisions, such as marital status, religion, political affiliation, sexual orientation, and whether or not the candidate has children.

While there aren’t any laws yet regarding how social media can be used in hiring decisions, legal experts say that a good rule of thumb is “Look, but don’t use” — a rule that is difficult to enforce. Because it is impossible to “unsee” something that you find on social media, experts recommend using a third-party firm to review social media accounts for red flags, such as violent or racist behavior, and refrain from viewing them otherwise.

Mistake #3: Not Being Consistent

Simply put, if you are going to run a background check on one candidate, you must run the same check on all candidates. If you fail to do so, you could face charges of discrimination.

Common Background Check MistakesMistake #4: Not Getting Permission

Most candidates for jobs know that a potential employer will scrutinize them before making a job offer. However, that doesn’t mean you can start snooping around without their express consent. The Fair Credit Reporting Act requires employers to acquire written consent from applicants before conducting a background check (although social media “snooping” doesn’t count, for now)

The act also requires employers to notify the applicant if anything comes up in the check that affected their hiring decision. Not only does getting applicant permission keep you out of hot water with the law, if also gives an applicant the chance to explain any potentially questionable information that could come up.

Mistake #5: Not Asking Questions

With all of the data that’s readily available to background screeners, it’s almost inevitable that there will be mistakes. Not to mention, just because someone has a criminal record, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t worthy of being hired. Part of the reason that the FCRA requires employers to notify applicants of the information that they find in background checks is to provide an opportunity for the applicant to explain or correct erroneous information.

In fact, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is actively trying to ban employers from including a checkbox on employment applications asking if the candidate has ever been convicted of a crime. The EEOC argues that reducing convictions down to a yes or no question creates opportunities for discrimination, since applicants may not have the chance to provide an explanation or more details. Employers are better off to ask questions than to rely on the information in a single report.

The best way to avoid making these common background check mistakes is to hire a reputable firm to conduct the investigation for you. An experienced, licensed agency is better equipped to find accurate information quickly and efficiently, and will help you avoid running afoul of the law by inadvertently accessing information that you’re not authorized to see. With so much at stake based on the outcome of a background check, it’s important to ensure it’s done properly and within the boundaries of the law.

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