A few years ago, I blogged about a woman who lost her job with a contractor supporting the US Social Security Administration (SSA) because of an error in the FBI's National Crime Information Center's (NCIC) database that the SSA used to conduct the woman's background check. Even though the error was discovered, the woman’s employer refused to hire her back.
An AP story appearing last week in the Washington Post describes how prospective employees are routinely not being hired in the first place because of errors in the databases being used to do criminal and other types of background checks on them. For example, and LA Timesstory cites the case of a man named Samuel M. Jackson who was denied a job because a background check came back saying he had been convicted of rape in 1987. However, Jackson was only 4 in 1987. The background check in fact had turned up accurate information for a Samuel L. Jackson (not the movie star), but the company doing the background check provided the employer with misleading information that implied that the rape charge was indeed associated with Samuel M. Jackson.
The AP and Times stories were based on a report titled, "Broken Records" (pdf), that was published last week by the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) that examines how errors in criminal background check databases are harming both prospective employees and employers. The NCLC states that there has been “an explosion in criminal background checks for job applicants by employers” since 9/11, but that the data being used for these checks is replete with errors [see a small sample here (pdf)]. Some 93 percent of employers now use some type of background checks on prospective hires, while 73 percent of employers conduct criminal background checks, the NCLC reports, so just about everyone looking for a job is at risk of being done in by bad data.
The errors the NCLC has discovered in routine background checks include:
- "Mismatched people (i.e. a person with no criminal background with someone who has a record, which is especially problematic for people with common names);
- Omitted crucial information about a case, (i.e. a person is arrested but then found innocent);
- Revealed sealed or expunged information (i.e. a juvenile offense);
- Provided misleading information, (i.e. a single charge listed multiple times), and/or
- Misclassified offenses (i.e. reporting a misdemeanor as a felony)."
The NCLS blames most of the errors on the companies doing the background checks which do not have to follow any set standards (no license is required to do background checks, so anyone with a computer and access to computer records can start a background check company) and which don’t check their data for accuracy (even though the Fair Credit Reporting Act (pdf) requires them to do so). The Law Center also blames employers who fail to let prospective employees know that they were rejected because of information in a background check (which the FCRA requires as well), what that information was, and where it came from.
The NCLS is recommending (pdf) the federal government start rigorously enforcing the FCRA and that state governments ensure background checking companies are doing their best to ensure they are using up-to-date and accurate information. These aren’t unreasonable requests, but with so little money in state and federal coffers, I don’t expect too much government enforcement action to be taken. I think your best defense from being torpedoed from a job by bad data right now is to keep a close eye on your credit reports, and to know your rights under the FCRA when you apply for a job.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.