Controversial and Discriminatory Use of Job Applicant Credit Reports by Employers Tops Background Screening Trends List for 2011

By Lester Rosen, Employment Screening Resources (ESR) President & Thomas Ahearn, ESR News Editor

For the past four years, Employment Screening Resources (ESR) – a leading background check provider to employers accredited by the National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS®) – has compiled a “Top Ten Trends in Background Screening” list of emerging and influential trends in employment background screening predicted by ESR founder and President Lester Rosen, an Attorney at Law and author of ‘The Safe Hiring Manual,’ the first comprehensive guide for background screening.

For the Fourth Annual ‘Top Ten Trends in Background Screening’ for 2011, Rosen chose the controversial, and potentially discriminatory, practice of employers checking credit reports of job applicants as the number one background screening trend for the year ahead. Articles detailing the top background screening trends for 2011 were published on ESR News starting in December 2010. Below is a list of the background screening trends with a brief summary and links to the full article:

A great deal of misinformation about the basics of credit reports, background checks, and job hunting exists in the current economic climate. The topic has been in the news and states have passed laws or are considering laws to restrict the use of credit reports and employment. Furthermore, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is looking closely at this area and has filed lawsuits alleging discriminatory use.

Most employers are not using credit reports to find ways to eliminate people from jobs. A background check that includes a credit report is usually run only after an employer has gone through the time, cost, and effort to find the right candidate. Employers initiate background checks because they are interested in hiring the applicant and are conducting due diligence to make sure there is no reason not to hire. Under the rules of the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), a credit report is only obtained after the applicant has given consent and after a legally required disclosure has been given. If the employer utilizes the credit report in any way not to hire, applicants are entitled to a copy of their credit report, a pre-adverse action notice, as well as a statement of their rights. Before any employment decision becomes final, applicants also have the right to challenge the credit report before any denial of employment is made final.

However, employers should approach credit reports with caution when using them for employment background checks, and must articulate a clear rationale as to why a credit report is related to a particular job. Employers should also be aware of the potential for errors in credit reports. A debt may be reported incorrectly for various reasons or the applicant could be the victim of identify theft which can also lead to incorrect data. In addition, negative entries may well not be a valid predictor of job performance especially since many job applicants have faced a long period of unemployment that may lead to larger debts.  An overly broad use of credit reports by employers could lead to claims of discrimination from a disparate impact on protected groups such as Blacks and Latinos. The idea that credit reports can be used in a discriminatory manner in the eyes of the EEOC means employers will continue to face controversy with discrimination over using credit reports for employment screening.

To read the full article on Trend #1, please visit:

Employers have become increasingly aware of the importance of knowing if a job applicant has a criminal record since they have a legal duty to make reasonable inquiries about who they hire in order to provide a safe workplace. An employer who hires a person with a criminal record can be found liable for negligent hiring if the hiring decision results in harm and could have been avoided by a simple criminal record check. Checking criminal records demonstrates due diligence and is also an important preventative measure to protect against workplace violence. One of the most effective tools an employer has is the use of an employment application form in the hiring process which enables employers to directly ask applicants if they have a criminal record. The advantage is that an employer can use a well worded application form to discourage applicants with something to hide while also encouraging applicants to be open and honest regarding questions about past criminal convictions.

However, the issue of whether employers can use a job application to ask about a job applicant’s criminal record is becoming more complicated. Many states, counties, and local governments have joined the “ban the box” movement removing the “box” job applicants are asked to check next to the question asking about past criminal convictions. In addition, more employers are facing lawsuits accusing them of violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by rejecting or firing qualified individuals with criminal records even when the criminal history has no bearing on the ability to perform their job. Due to these factors, questions about criminal records of job applicants are becoming much more difficult for employers to ask.

To read the full article on Trend #2, please visit:

According to an age old platitude, “If something looks too good to be true, it probably is,” so employers should be wary of fast and cheap online criminal background checks that promise accurate and legal information on job applicants at the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen. The need for accurate and reliable information should be obvious to anyone dealing with background checks. Even so, numerous internet sites have sprung up recently promising cheap, almost instant background checks that deliver criminal information to anyone, anywhere, and in seconds. These sites utilize a so-called “national criminal database” and vendors of such databases typically claim to have compiled millions of records from every state so users can know instantly if someone is a criminal at a very low price.

Although a multi-state records database can be a powerful tool when used by a qualified employment screening firm as part of an overall background check, employers who think they are getting a real criminal background check can be in for a rude awaking when they discover that such searches are far from the real thing. Applicants with criminal records can easily be missed, while people without records can be incorrectly identified as criminals. Both results carry negative financial and legal implications for employers. Employers using these databases for employment purposes need to understand the limitations and legal exposure associated with using them or risk finding themselves embroiled in litigation. Employers are quickly discovering that fast and cheap online background checks using criminal databases not always accurate or legal.

To read the full article on Trend #3, please visit:

Many employers do not realize they potentially face the same exposure from vendors, independent contractors, and temporary employees from staffing firms as they do from their own full-time employees when it comes to negligent hiring lawsuits. Risk management controls of employers often do not take into account the “need to know” through background checks of workers who are not on their payroll but are on their premises, with access to computer systems, clients, co-workers, assets, and the general public. The law is absolutely clear that if a vendor, independent contractor, or temporary worker harms a member of the public or a co-worker, the employer can be just as liable as if the person were on the employer’s full-time payroll. All of the rules of due diligence – which include background checks – apply with equal force to vendors, temporary workers, or independent contractors. A business can be liable if, in the exercise of reasonable care, the business should have known that a vendor, temporary worker, or independent contractor was dangerous, unqualified, or otherwise unfit for employment. An employer has an absolute obligation to exercise due diligence not only in whom they hire on payroll, but in whom they allow on premises to perform work. Employers can also be held liable under the legal doctrine of “co-employment,” which means that even though the worker is on someone else’s payroll, the business that uses and supervisees the worker can still be held liable for any misconduct.

However, many employers have found out the hard way that workers from a vendor or staffing firm or hired as an independent contractor without proper background checks can also cause damage. When an employer is the victim of theft, embezzlement, or resume fraud, the harm is just as bad regardless of whether the worker is on their payroll or someone else’s payroll. No employer would dream of walking down the street and handing the keys to the business to a total stranger, yet many employers across America essentially do exactly that everyday when engaging the services of vendors and temporary workers with proper background checks. So-called “temporary” workers can cause permanent problems for employers without the background checks that are performed on full-time employees. As hiring of temporary workers increases – and since the hiring of temporary workers is usually an indication of hiring full-time workers in the future – employers will become increasingly more concerned with background checks of temporary workers in the coming year.

To read the full article on Trend #4, please visit:

In 2011, due to the mobility of workers across international borders in a global economy making it no longer adequate to conduct background screening checks just in the United States, a major trend will be the necessity of international background screening since an increasing number of workers will have spent part of their professional careers abroad. Employers in the U.S. have long recognized that conducting due diligence on new hires with background screening is a mission critical task that can help them avoid being the subject of negligent hiring lawsuits if they hire someone that they should have known – through the exercise of due diligence – was dangerous, unfit or unqualified.

However, with the increased mobility of workers across international borders it is no longer adequate to conduct these background screening checks just in the United States. Background screening also must be done internationally since an increasing number of workers have spent part of their professional careers abroad. The number of foreign countries from which U.S. employers may seek information about applicants with international background screening is expansive, and includes Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, and the United Kingdom (U.K.).

To read the full article on Trend #5, please visit:  

A background screening trend that recently emerged where employers used social network sites such as Facebook – the most popular social networking site with over 500 million active users worldwide – to run ‘Social Network Background Checks’ on job candidates should become even more prevalent in 2011, and increase the legal risks for employers. No discussion about background screening these days is complete without an analysis of how the Internet is used for hiring. From social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter to blogs, videos on YouTube, and business connection sites like LinkedIn, employers focus with laser-like intensity on how to use the Internet for background screening job candidates. What is sometimes overlooked in the rush to use the Internet for background screening is the one question employers need to ask: What are the legal risks in using the Internet for hiring? The answer involves issues of discrimination, authenticity, and privacy. If employers insist on using social network sites for background screening, then they must realize that much of the ‘new media’ available to them for background screening is still covered by current employment regulations.

To read the full article on Trend #6, please visit:   

A background screening trend that gained much attention in 2010 that will continue to do so in 2011 will be increased workplace violence prevention education to help protect both employers and employees. While the term “workplace violence” is appropriate for a quick definition or diagnosis of a problem, fully defining all aspects of “workplace violence” can be nebulous at best. Many employers loosely define workplace violence as: Assaults, other violent acts, or threats which occur in or are related to the workplace and entail a substantial risk of physical or emotional harm to individuals, or damage to company resources or capabilities. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OHSA) defines “workplace violence” as “violence or the threat of violence against workers” that involves any physical assault, threatening behavior, or verbal abuse occurring in, or related to, the workplace, and includes behaviors ranging in aggressiveness from verbal harassment to murder. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were 521 workplace killings in the United States in 2009, 420 of them committed by gunfire.

To read the full article on Trend #7, please visit:

A new background screening trend emerging in 2011 will be the increased concern over the “offshoring” of Personally Identifiable Information (PII) of U.S. consumers. A recently signed California law appears to be the first in the United States to regulate the “offshoring” of Personally Identifiable Information (PII) of U.S. consumers collected for background checks, a controversial practice where private data of U.S. citizens – such as names, dates of birth, addresses, and Social Security numbers (SSNs) – is sent overseas, outside the United States and its territories, and beyond the reach of U.S. privacy laws. In September 2010, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law California Senate Bill 909 (SB 909), which addresses the issue of personal information being sent offshore. SB 909 – which takes effect January 1, 2012 to allow time for background check firms to provide new releases to employers or modify online language – amends the California Investigative Consumer Reporting Agencies Act (ICRA) that regulates background checks in California and requires that a consumer must be notified as part of a disclosure before the background check of the web address for “information about the investigative reporting agency’s privacy practices, including whether the consumer’s personal information will be sent outside the United States or its territories.”

To read the full article on Trend #8, please visit:

An October 2010 press release from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced record-breaking immigration enforcement statistics achieved under the Obama administration, which included issuing more financial sanctions on employers who hired unauthorized workers than during the entire previous Bush administration. Since January 2009, when President Barack Obama took office, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) – the principal investigative arm of DHS – has audited more than 3,200 employers suspected of hiring workers not legally eligible to work in the U.S., debarred 225 companies and individuals, and imposed approximately $50 million in financial sanctions, according to the DHS. A summary of fines and penalties from ICE reveals that this surge in enforcement of a legal U.S. workforce included a 500 percent increase in penalties from worksite enforcement actions (over $5 million), a nearly two-fold increase in I-9 audits (2,200), a record-breaking 180 criminal prosecutions of employers, and the debarring of more than 97 businesses, compared to 30 last fiscal year, with average fines exceeding $110,000. Due in large part to increased scrutiny on employers from ICE through I-9 audits – where employee information on Employment Eligibility Verification Forms (“I-9 forms”) is checked for accuracy by Government agents – penalties from worksite enforcement inspections have increased recently.

To read the full article on Trend #9, please visit:

Before this year, employers were largely on their own when selecting a background screening firm. With hundreds upon hundreds of background screening firms to choose from, employers faced a bewildering landscape of competing claims that touted any number of bells and whistles that made it hard to distinguish one background screening provider form another. Some background screening firms had ISO (International Organization for Standardization) certification, but as noted in the article “Backgrounds to the Foreground” in the December 2010 issue of HR Magazine, the ISO designation is not specific to background screening and does not guarantee quality of products or services. Employers were also faced with “commercial” rankings published by private “for-profit” publications, which only added to the confusion. The problem for employers is that background screening is a critical function subject to intense legal regulation, and so the stakes are high. In 2010, the National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS®) Background Screening Credentialing Council (BSCC) took significant steps towards solving this perplexing problem with the creation of the Background Screening Agency Accreditation Program (BSAAP) that covers all areas related to the background screening process and, most important, is professional and objective and not based upon any commercial considerations. The BSAAP advances professionalism in the background screening industry through the promotion of best practices, awareness of legal compliance, and development of standards that protect consumers.

To read the full article on Trend #10, please visit:

The Employment Screening Resources (ESR) Fourth Annual ‘Top Ten Trends in Background Screening’ for 2011 is available at:

For more information on background screening or to purchase background checks, visit Employment Screening Resources (ESR) at

Founded in 1996 in the San Francisco Bay area, Employment Screening Resources (ESR) is the company that wrote the book on background checks with ‘The Safe Hiring Manual’ by ESR founder and President Lester Rosen. Employment Screening Resources is accredited by The National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS®) Background Screening Credentialing Council (BSCC) for proving compliance with the Background Screening Agency Accreditation Program (BSAAP). ESR was the third U.S. background check firm to be ‘Safe Harbor’ Certified for data privacy protection. To learn more about ESR’s Leadership, Resources, and Solutions, visit or contact Jared Callahan, ESR Director of Client Relations, at 415.898.0044 or