When is a background check appropriate?

August 31, 2022

There's currently a lot of discussion about whether employers should be doing background checks on potential employees. As Top Resume explains, people opposed to background checks argue that they're unfair and discriminatory, while proponents of the practice contend that they're essential in vetting job applicants to make sure only trustworthy, reliable and healthy people join the organization. Others posit that background checks are acceptable only in certain instances or that employers should conduct background checks, but with loosened or relaxed disqualifying criteria in mind.

What are background checks?

There are several kinds of background checks but the most common ones are criminal record checks, credit checks and medical history checks.

  • Criminal record checks: Conducting a criminal record check involves finding a candidate's criminal history including a history of arrests, charges, convictions and sentences. Per the Society for Human Resources, how readily criminal records are available largely depends on state laws.
  • Credit checks: Also known as consumer credit reports, credit checks examine a person's financial history and can include any debt a person has accrued, their payment habits and any loans they might have.
  • Medical history checks: Often referred to as medical records, these documents outline a person's current and past health issues or conditions, as well as those of their family members, WebMD notes. These are probably the most controversial of all the background checks due to their potential for discrimination based on disability.

When should you do a background check?

As a general rule, conducting background checks should be based on the nature of the role for which an organization is hiring, as well as the nature of the organization itself. Many industries such as health care, education and public service require background checks by law, while others are at the employer's discretion.

  1. Criminal record checks: According to Personnel Checks, a criminal record check "lets employers know whether someone is appropriate to fulfill certain roles involving vulnerable groups." The SHRM agrees and expands, saying that criminal record checks "can help you assess whether the applicant is qualified to work with customers or are even allowed to carry out activities related to certain vulnerable customers."
  2. Credit checks: It's a good idea to do a credit check if a role involves handling an organization's money, such as accountancy roles. You'll want to know that the candidate is fiscally responsible and knowledgeable about financial best practices.
  3. Medical history check: It's advisable to conduct a medical history check (obviously with a candidate's consent as this is extremely personal information) when the job for which they're applying is physically taxing or working conditions are potentially hazardous to employees' health, such as with mines or industrial manufacturing plants. By ensuring a potential employee is physically fit and able to do the job in question, employers can reduce their liability and claims risks associated with workplace injuries.