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Pre-employment screening: tips to navigate awkward conversations

Nikoletta Bika
Nikoletta Bika

Nikoletta holds an MSc in HR management and has written extensively about all things HR and recruiting.

When it’s handled clumsily, pre-employment screening has the potential to drive a wedge between employers and employees. Employers naturally want to know as much as possible about a person they will put in a position of trust. On the other hand, candidates can see it as an invasion on their personal information, or an apparent lack of trust from their future employer, even if they have nothing to hide. So, communicating the purpose and process of pre-employment screening is a way for employers to defuse any concerns on the part of the candidate.

US law obliges employers to ask for the candidate’s permission before they run a background screening. Afterwards, they also have to inform candidates of their intention to reject them (adverse action notification) to give them time to rebut a false report. The candidate will inevitably have their own concerns and questions on the pre-employment screening. Leaving them in the dark means great candidates will question the employer’s motivation, their approach and whether they should best accept another offer that doesn’t involve employee screening.

To avoid this confusion, an open discussion is vital. Think about candidates’ concerns so you can alleviate them and answer their questions.

Here, we provide you with some questions your candidates are likely to ask (or at least have on their mind) before a pre-employment screening, and tips to answer them without causing awkwardness:

Question 1: Why is this necessary?

It’s not unreasonable for a candidate to think that any information that can’t be found on their resume is obsolete because it isn’t job related.

Tip: Think about your reasons and be honest

You may want to do thorough pre-employment background checks on everyone you interview. Depending on the role this won’t be cost effective and may even expose you to litigation. So, think about how necessary or legal it is to request a background check. Build your argument on how the results of the screening correspond to the candidate’s ability to do the job. For example, if you’re interviewing a candidate for an accounting position, you can reasonably explain why a credit check is important. But if you’re thinking of doing a credit check for a shop assistant position, it will be much harder to persuade them it’s necessary.

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Question 2: Do you do it to everyone or just me?

This question hides a serious discrimination hazard.

Tip: Say it’s your standard procedure (and mean it)

Background checks should be mandated by the nature of the position and be part of a determined hiring process. Don’t decide suddenly that you want to run a background check for a candidate you have a “feeling” about. That may expose you to legal risks under equal employment opportunity laws which can be difficult to respond to. Ideally, you should have already informed candidates that they’ll have to go through a background check in your job ad.

Question 3: Isn’t this a violation of my privacy?

Candidates may not be aware of laws about background checks. They may reasonably think it’s something unethical and potentially illegal.

Tip: Discuss your rights (and theirs)

This is a valid concern among candidates, regardless of whether they have something to hide or not. They may naturally feel exposed to the company and that may foster an issue of trust with a future employer. Explain carefully that the law permits background checks as long as protocol is followed and discrimination is avoided. Talk about the candidate’s rights also, their right to receive a review of the final report or the right to refuse a background check (also forfeiting the position). Speak explicitly about confidentiality and equal opportunity compliance.

Question 4: Are you looking for reasons to reject me?

A candidate might think that if they were good enough they’d be hired on the spot. A request for a background check could mean that you don’t really like them and are looking for a reason to avoid hiring them.

Tip: Tell them what the background check means to you

First, let the candidates know that you wouldn’t be willing to spend money and time for a background check on an employee you don’t want to hire. Tell them the background check is meant to reinforce a hiring decision rather than prevent it. On top of that, discuss what would be an unacceptable “red flag” that could make you retract interest in the candidate. Obviously, if there’s a sex offender record and you’re hiring for a teacher, you wouldn’t look much further before rejecting them. Discuss also what wouldn’t influence your decision, a bad driving record ten years ago or a poor credit report.

Question 5: What does a background check involve?

Candidates have a right to know (as you have a legal obligation to tell them) what types of pre-employment screening will be done.

Tip: Ask permission for all background checks

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) mandates that you ask explicit permission for certain kinds of background checks (criminal records, credit report etc.). You don’t need permission for reference or social media checks, but it’s still a good practice to inform candidates that you want to do those too. They’re more likely to trust and respect a company that informed them beforehand about the check instead of telling them later this is why they were rejected.

Question 6: Do I need to do anything?

A candidate that hasn’t been through this process before may not know what is expected of them or whether they need to do something.

Tip: Tell them you only need their permission (and nothing else!)

Let the candidates know that you utilize the services of a trustworthy background check service and that you only need their written permission. You don’t want candidates to stress about what they need to do or, even worse, try to fiddle around with their references or records. Tell them specifically that there’s nothing required of them apart from giving official permission. It’s also best to inform them how much time they’ll need to wait for you to contact them so they won’t be left wondering if something went wrong.

Question 7: If the background check is clean, will I get the job?

Candidates may naturally assume that the background check is the final barrier to them landing the job.

Tip: Be clear about whether they’re your finalist

Your statements here will depend on how far in your hiring process you place the background check. If you wait until you have the one and only candidate that you’d like to hire, tell them so and be prepared to hire them if the background check is satisfactory. If you do it to several of the finalists, tell them that a clean background report won’t necessarily win them the job. Be consistent in what you promise. If you’re vague about your intentions, candidates may suspect that you’re discriminating against them or that you have illegitimate reasons for requesting pre-employment screening.

Question 8: If something negative comes up, will you give me a chance to explain?

Some candidates may have something in mind that can be unearthed through a pre-employment screening. Especially if the offense or issue was long ago or if it was just an honest mistake, they’ll want a chance to tell their side of the story.

Tip: Be open about your intention to talk it over

If you discover that a candidate has a criminal record, you aren’t likely to gain anything by discussing it. Tell the candidate that, in this case, you’re obliged to send them adverse action notification along with the copy of the report and a summary of their rights under the FCRA before you reject them officially. That will give them enough time to dispute a false report with the background check company. Sometimes though, background checks reveal something minor or something that can’t be lawfully used to make a decision on its own (e.g. arrest record). In this case, let the candidate know that they may be called back to discuss it. If you’re satisfied with their explanation and their honesty, you can then make them an official offer.

See our Employee Background Check Policy Sample for a starting point in developing your company policies.

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