FBI Background Checks: Why Employers Should Use With Caution
According to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s website, a Criminal History Summary is a listing of certain information taken from fingerprint submission retained by the FBI in connection with arrests and, in some instances, federal employment, naturalization, or military service. This federal background check can be a useful tool for employers conducting pre-employment screening on potential hires, but solely relying on the FBI’s Criminal History Summary as the basis of your pre-employment background checks can prove detrimental to your organization. The media, questioning both their accuracy and effectiveness, has recently scrutinized FBI background checks.
There’s no question why employers wouldn’t consider a federal criminal history search, such as the FBI Criminal History Summary, as an attractive risk mitigation tool for their hiring practices. The FBI’s databases are considered to be the largest source of criminal information in the country. In addition, their records can be linked to fingerprints as well as names. There’s also at least 1,600 state laws that mandate FBI background checks. So why are employers being cautioned from relying too heavily on these seemingly comprehensive criminal history searches? The reason is simple—they were never designed to serve as a comprehensive background report.
FBI Records: Incomplete Information
According to a 153-page 2006 U.S. Attorney General's Report on Criminal History Background Checks, the FBI databases are estimated to be "missing final disposition information for approximately 50 percent of its records." Unfortunately, this incomplete information appears to disproportionately affect African Americans compared to other groups according to recent reports. A report from the National Employment Law Project published in July 2013 estimates that the FBI's inaccurate information potentially harms over 600,00 workers per year during their job search. While federal law dictates that the records produced by the FBI should be accurate and kept up to date, the attorney general's report clearly indicates the reality is otherwise. In a recent statement, the FBI indicated it relies on the states to provide its records and keep them current.
The Case for Supplemental Background Checks
The 2006 attorney general report also recommends employers to perform state-level searches, in addition to the FBI check, to provide a more comprehensive report. The reason for this recommendation is that state criminal history records are “more complete and up-to-date than the FBI-maintained records.” According to a report from the Washington Post, transmitting information from the courts to state records agencies could take less than a day in Delaware to 555 days in Kansas. This means that employers who solely rely on FBI records as the basis of their background screening procedures could have nearly two years’ worth of information NOT included in the reports. While the National Employment Law Project made some recommendations for improving the FBI’s records, what are employers to do in the meantime? The answer is to follow the best practices we share with all of our clients. In a previous article from December 2012, PreCheck’s Director of Operations Dana Sangerhausen recommends that employers utilize a blended approach of using County level searches along with the FBI searches. By not relying solely on the FBI's records, employers can protect themselves from relying too heavily on inaccurate information that is both outdated and incomplete.
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¹ The Attorney General's Report on Criminal History Background Checks. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of the Attorney General. June 2013.
² Wanted: Accurate FBI Background Checks for Employment (Report). National Employment Law Project. July 2013.