Tell Me About Yourself

Date: September 20, 2006

Concerned about workplace security and skyrocketing litigation costs, many employers--large and small--now include pre-employment background checks as a standard step in applicant screening. A recent study found that half of all job applicants provided false information. More troubling is that an employee is 15 times more likely than a nonemployee to steal from an employer. Since more than 30 percent of business failures are directly related to employee theft, it pays to know who's really minding the store.

Just ask Beth Clemons, owner of a small Minnesota school bus company, Clemons Bus Lines, about the added security background checks provide. "Running a background check is about protecting our clients, which in our case are kids," Clemons says. "We make sure the person we hire is who they say they are."

Regardless of the reason for conducting the background check, keep in mind that legal boundaries limit the information available to employers. Applicants (and current employees) have privacy rights that they can enforce by suing you if you pry too deeply. Follow these rules to be safe:

Get permission. Require consent, in writing, from all applicants. Detail how and what you plan to check. Consent on the front end helps ensure legal compliance and gives applicants a chance to take themselves out of the running if there are things they don't want you to know. If applicants refuse to consent to a reasonable request for information, it's legal for you to decide against hiring them based on their refusal.

Stick to the facts. Only check information that is relevant to the job. For example, if you are hiring a security guard who will carry a weapon and be responsible for large amounts of cash, then a check for past criminal convictions is reasonable. The major background-check vendors offer a variety of reports that address the individual needs of a business. The most common background reports include: criminal, prior employment verification, education verification, licensing verification, motor vehicle record, credit, Social Security number and reference checks.

Outsource it. Though you can conduct a background check yourself, it's probably more convenient to hire an outside vendor to conduct the check. Just make sure the company complies with the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the federal law that regulates the acquisition and use of credit information. To find a reputable firm in your state, contact the National Association of Professional Background Screeners at

Beth Gaudio is a staff attorney with the NFIB Legal Foundation. This article is intended to provide general information for reference only and should not be considered legal advice.

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