Background checks include ‘lots of inaccuracies,’ researchers find

The mistakes can go both ways. Reports may miss convictions or falsely assign a conviction to someone due to data errors.

Published Feb. 23, 2024

By Carolyn Crist

taking fingerprints of a criminal

Employers may not be able to trust background checks completely, particularly because they may contain false information, according to a new study published in the research journal Criminology.

Private-sector companies that employers use to run checks are loosely regulated entities, according to the report, and may include mistakes due to an incorrect spelling of a name, transposed numbers in a birth date or the existence of common aliases.

“There’s a common, taken-for-granted assumption that background checks are an accurate reflection of a person’s criminal record, but our findings show that’s not necessarily the case,” co-author Robert Stewart, an assistant professor in the criminology and criminal justice department at the University of Maryland, said in a statement.

“My co-author and I found that there are lots of inaccuracies and mistakes in background checks caused, in part, by imperfect data aggregation techniques that rely on names and birth dates rather than unique identifiers like fingerprints,” he said.

The research team analyzed criminal records for 101 people in New Jersey, comparing official state reports of arrests, criminal charges and case depositions with two sources of private-sector background checks (one regulated and one unregulated by federal law), as well as interviews with the participants.

More than half of the participants had at least one false-positive error, and about 90% had at least one false-negative error. In interviews, the participants talked about how the errors had limited their access to opportunities, including jobs, education and housing.

“Other countries are handling background checks in different ways, ways that may take more time, but there are better models out there,” Stewart said. “It may be better for background checks to be done through the state, or the FBI, or through other ways that use biometric data. It’s important for people to realize that there’s a lot at stake.”

Many diversity, equity and inclusion strategists have recommended that employers re-examine their interest in a job candidate’s criminal history and use of background checks. Instead of using background checks to narrow a candidate pool, recruiters can get to know applicants as they are today and later run a check after making an offer.

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In a 2023 case, a job seeker sued ADP’s background screening arm for inaccurately reporting to a prospective employer that he was a convicted murderer. A review of available public records would have found that the job seeker and convicted murderer were different people, according to the lawsuit.

California lawmakers have considered a bill that would ban most private employers from seeking a background check, as well as ending an interview or terminating the application process based on conviction history. The bill failed in the state senate in February 2024, but some aspects of the legislation may be brought forward for consideration again in the future.

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