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Employment background checks shift to continuous

Conducting employment background checks on existing employees and contractors is a growing trend. But the practice raises ethical questions for HR departments.

The use of post-hire background checks for continuous monitoring is on the rise. Digital police records mean employers could learn of an employee's arrest soon after booking. But use of the technology raises ethical questions for employers.

According to industry data, about 93% of firms globally conduct background checks as part of a hiring process. But only about 1 in 5 employers conduct background checks post-hire.

Background checks include employment, credit, education and professional license verification, as well as criminal and driving record checks. Post-hire background checks can be periodic, such as annually, or continuous.

In 2021, about 19% of organizations conducted post-hire background checks, according to survey data from the Professional Background Screening Association, an industry group. That's up from 12% in 2020.

But initiating a background screening process on existing employees may raise problems.

"Be careful what you ask, because you may find something you would prefer you didn't find," said David Lewis, president and CEO of OperationsInc, an HR consulting firm in Norwalk, Conn. "Are you prepared to let those people go?"

An employer that won't take action against a valued employee raises other questions: "How will you justify a policy that starts with those kinds of exceptions?" Lewis said.

Graphic explaining continuous background checks at a glance

The case for continuous

But there's a stronger case for ongoing employment background checks for jobs related to public safety, Lewis said. Honk Technologies in Los Angeles provides one such use case.

Honk's app platform connects tow operators with drivers who need roadside help. Most of Honk's customers are insurance firms that use its platform for nationwide roadside assistance programs. Its technology finds the nearest help in the shortest amount of time, according to Andrea Hall, senior director of network operations at Honk.

Honk has more than 100,000 roadside assistance professionals in its network. It runs continuous background checks on its top performers.

New contractors to Honk's system get a background check through its vendor, Checkr, based in San Francisco. Once contractors are hired, Checkr's continuous subscription service keeps track of their government records for arrests and changes in motor vehicle records.

Continuous check is making the world safer, sooner for the consumers.
Andrea HallSenior director of network operations, Honk Technologies

Firms that only run background checks when hiring "may never be made aware of a new charge showing up on someone's criminal history," Hall said.

Honk might quickly learn of an arrest. Many arrest records are electronic, but not all. In some jurisdictions, there can be delays of days before an alert.

Depending on the severity of the charge, Honk may remove a contract worker from its platform.

The contractor can be allowed back on the network if charges are dropped, expunged or otherwise removed, Hall said. If the contractor believes there is an error, the vendor's investigators will look into it, she added.

"It gives our clients peace of mind," Hall said. "Continuous check is making the world safer, sooner for the consumers."

A problem with arrest records

But arrest records are not meant to be used for background checks, said Sarah Esther Lageson, associate professor at the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University-Newark. She said that the records might not have fingerprints attached to them, records might be incorrect, or the identity of the person arrested is unverified.

"We don't even know if the arrest is constitutional," Lageson said. "It hasn't gotten in front of a prosecutor or a judge."

But background check vendors believe there is a strong argument for continuous checks.

Job candidates might pass an initial background check, but that "doesn't mean they are not going to change over time," said Ranjeev Teelock, chief product officer at First Advantage, a background screening firm that went public last year.

The checks also include monitoring for lapses in professional licenses, such as those held by caregivers, which could put businesses at risk.

If someone is arrested and put in jail, First Advantage can know within 15 minutes about that arrest, Teelock said. Digital access of police records isn't universal, but First Advantage said it has 87% of the U.S. population covered in terms of arrest records.

Arrest data goes into a jail management system of record. Jail system data isn't publicly accessible, but it is accessible to certain firms that have an agreement with governments and employee authorization to access the data, Teelock said.

He said the firm also offers social media monitoring, but that adoption is low because employers don't want to be a Big Brother to their employees. "And a lot of information on social media is subject to interpretation," Teelock said.

But Andrew Selepak, a social media professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville, believes that monitoring, or social listening, of employee social media is a good practice for businesses. Some employees don't understand that what they post can affect their own, as well as their employer's, reputation, he said.

"What an employee posts can be seen as an extension of that business," Selepak said.

These days, social media has been used as fuel for firing employees embroiled in viral controversies.

"Monitoring employees is also a good way to get in front of a crisis," he said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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