The Latest Job Search Obstacle: Low-Budget Background Checks

by Lisa Swan on April 13, 2012

What if you lost out on a job because your criminal background check said you committed crimes that you had nothing to do with? Turns out, this happens more than you think.

Ever since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, employers have been tightening up their background checks on potential and current staffers – now as many as 93% of all employers do some sort of check on their employees, usually hiring background check companies to do the work. But the National Consumer Law Center has discovered that the process is more like the “Wild West of employment screening,” with unlicensed companies, inaccurate information, and repeated violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act. It details the problems in a new report called “Broken Records.”

Persis Yu, co-author of the report, says that the companies doing background checks “routinely cut corners to improve their profits” and then “wipe their hands of any responsibility” for issuing a background report with incorrect information that could cost an employee their job, or prevent them from getting one.

For example, a man with the name of Samuel M. Jackson was denied a job not because he was confused with the movie star Samuel L. Jackson, but with a convicted rapist by the name of Samuel L. Jackson. Not only that, but the rape conviction in question happened in 1987, a time when the job applicant was all of four years old!

That’s not the only person who had issues due to having the same name as a criminal. Catherine Taylor of Arkansas shared the same birthdate as Catherine Taylor of Illinois, a woman with a criminal record, and the first Catherine Taylor faced issues with employment and even finding a place to live due to background checks confusing the two.

You would think there would be better matching information, but it’s cheaper to simply do such cursory checks. Which means that job applicants could be losing out on positions they are perfect for, simply because the background check company did their check on the cheap. Lovely.

Background screening companies haven’t just incorrectly linked applicants with others who happen to share the same name, but they also have made other errors that can cost jobseekers the opportunity to get a job, such as including misleading data, and even revealing sealed or expunged data.

The report says that the screening companies frequently do not include complete criminal background information, including the disposition of cases; just because someone is charged with a crime does not mean they were convicted of that crime. In some cases, the applicants received lesser sentences, or no sentence at all, yet the system still had the prior information. Even those who had their criminal records expunged may discover that thanks to old data, their record has not been expunged at all.

The study says that many of the issues happen due to background check firms not regularly updating their information, not checking to make sure their data is accurate, using “unsophisticated” criteria to match applicants with information, and not understanding how each state treats various defenses.

Sounds like fixing this system is a job for the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which is exactly what the National Consumer Law Center is proposing, saying that this employment screening process needs to be “reined in.” Absolutely – what is the point of having a criminal background check done, if the information is flat-out inaccurate? Of all the hurdles job applicants face these days, this one is one of the most infuriating.

Lisa Swan is a Feature Writer for the Compliance Exchange and Wall Street Job Report. She is also a columnist for The Faster Times and a blogger for Subway Squawkers. Her work has also appeared in the New York Daily News, Yahoo Sports, Huffington Post and the books Graphical Player 2011 and Graphical Player 2010.

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