The background check. It sounds intimidating, all-encompassing, legally binding and almost invasive in scope. Many people — employers or employees — never deal with them directly, and have only the vaguest ideas of what they really are or what they might reveal. In the childcare industry, though, background checks can be life-changing documents, for both nannies and families. They can guide parents to make hiring or firing decisions; they can proudly vouch for a nanny or haunt them for years. For these and many other reasons, it’s important for you to learn about background checks no matter what part of the hiring process you’re in. When you truly understand what a background check is and what it isn’t, you can use them to make the best decision possible regarding childcare.
Background Checks: A Definition
A background check isn’t just a phone call to someone’s former employer to verify work history. If you’re dealing with childcare, it doesn’t mean just verifying that your nanny worked where she or he said they did. There’s a lot more to it than that. In fact, the phrase “background check” is so broad it’s almost meaningless.
In the context of employment, a background check is a thorough investigation of criminal and automotive history, and it’s performed to give employers the most information possible when it comes to making a hiring decision. According to the National Association of Professional Background Screeners — a trade group devoted to ethics and best practices in the field — these types of background checks are typically conducted by licensed third-party consumer reporting agencies that are governed by the Fair Credit Reporting Act. The FCRA regulates the method of collecting and distributing consumer information as a way to protect employees and consumers. It’s crucial to note that fair and legal background checks require the consent of the person you’re investigating. If an agency tells you they can run a background check on a nanny you want to hire without actually telling the nanny, that’s a red flag. You need their authorization for the search.
Things That Will Appear on a Background Check
A proper background check can cover a variety of areas, including (but not limited to):
- Drug test information
- Verification of employment, and if the applicant has earned any licenses or degrees they claim to have earned
- Criminal record checks verified through local, state, federal and even international courts
- Registry investigations, including searches of sex offender registries and child abuse registries
- Credit history (minus an applicant’s actual credit score)
- Driving records
As you can tell, the point of a good background check is to give an employer as much information as possible about the applicant in front of them. This is important in any job, but it’s especially important when you’re hiring a nanny, someone who will spend long, unsupervised hours every day with your children for months or even years. A nanny needs to be able to transport the children, make purchases for household items and be trusted caring for the kids; all things that tie into the areas covered in a background check.
To find this information, consumer reporting agencies check a variety of databases, including a family of systems at the FBI. There’s the FBI Identification Record, which covers criminal history and information connected to arrests. There’s a caveat here, though: some state laws prohibit using arrest and conviction records when making hiring decisions, so even if you find out an applicant had some criminal issues in their past, you might not be allowed to let that bias your decision. According to the NAPBS, California restricts the use of some marijuana-related convictions in the decision-making process if the applicant’s conviction is more than two years old. You should always consult with your consumer reporting agency about the findings of a background check to see what’s clear for you to know and use for employment purposes.
There’s also the Interstate Identification Index System (aka, the III), which allows for federal and state law enforcement agencies to share information about misdemeanors and felonies for background check purposes. However, the burden falls on the states to keep the databases updated, so sometimes the III might not have the latest data, especially about someone who’s lived in many states.
In addition to database checks there are also primary records searches. Considered the “gold standard” in criminal background checks, the county courthouse criminal records check requires a court runner to manually check the records at county courthouses if the records aren’t current and available online. Since sometimes records for felonies and misdemeanors are stored in different courts within a county, it is imperative that the proper court house records are checked to get an accurate picture of what, if any, records are available on an applicant.
The point of all this is that, though there are many helpful resources available for conducting background checks, there remains no single unified system that contains complete and updated criminal history for people. Searching multiple databases and sources is a good measure, but it’s also the only one we have.
Things That Won’t Appear on a Background Check
This naturally leads people to wonder: if there’s no single database for background checks, is it possible for some things to be overlooked? Yes.
Some things won’t appear on a background check because they’re not relevant or allowable to the scope of employment. For instance, medical records are out, as are records for anything that might have happened to the applicant as a juvenile. As mentioned above, while credit history is covered, specific credit score isn’t. Minor things like parking tickets may not be included, either, because they’re not fingerprintable incidents.
But the biggest thing that a background check won’t catch is obvious: if the applicant committed a crime and got away with it. That, and if the applicant committed a crime outside of the area that was searched. By definition, a background check can only turn up things that made it to the courts. A check can list a person’s criminal history, but that doesn’t mean it lists their entire history. Such a thing would be impossible.
That’s why it’s so important to remember that a background check is not a shield against future criminal activity, but merely an information-gathering tool designed to give employers the most information possible to help them make the best decision they can. You should absolutely perform a background check on anybody you’re considering hiring as a nanny, but you should never let that check give you a false sense of security. Just as old criminal history can be a sign that someone’s turned their life around and gotten their act together, so too can it indicate someone who might be willing to break the rules again if given the opportunity.
The bottom line is that there’s no such thing as a bulletproof background check. A background check should be used in conjunction with other interviewing tools, ranging from fact-finding questions to time spent with someone to gauge their personality. Using as many information gathering tools as possible and pairing what you’ve gleaned with good judgment will help you to make an educated and informed hiring decision.