On Our Minds

Working with so many organizations across multiple issue areas gives us a unique view into what’s happening in the social sector. This is where we share our insights and ruminations.
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Removing bias from employment background checks

Background checks are a standard part of most hiring processes—but they have the potential to undermine an otherwise equity-focused hiring process. Here’s what to look for and what to ignore to check a candidate’s background without introducing bias: 

What to leave out of a background check (or at least take with a grain of salt)

1. Criminal background 

Criminal background checks are perhaps the most common site of bias within the background check process. Having a criminal record is deeply stigmatized in professional settings, even though most offenses have no bearing on a candidate’s ability to perform the role. 

A minor, nonviolent felony offense, such as marijuana possession, may appear on a candidate's record, even if recreational use is legal in their state. Or, you may find that a candidate appears on a sex offender registry, which could easily be the result of a nonviolent, misdemeanor offense, like public urination. The initial discovery might set off alarm bells among the hiring committee, biasing them against the candidate. Further, if the candidate is hired, you now know deeply personal information about their past that may subconsciously color the way you or your coworkers treat them. 

Running a criminal background check may also introduce racial or class bias because people of color and people from low-income communities are disproportionately arrested and prosecuted and often face harsher sentences than their white and higher-income peers. By looking at a candidate's criminal background, you’re potentially undermining all of the equity work you’ve undertaken throughout the hiring process. 

2. Credit 

Many of our clients have requested to run credit checks before formally extending an offer to a candidate, especially when the position will require handling money. Not only can this undermine racial equity, but it is illegal to perform credit checks for employment purposes in some states, because of the practice's unequal effects on communities of color, specifically Black people. 

3. Residential address

Attempting to discern something deeper about a candidate’s character based on how often they’ve moved allows your own prejudices, whether conscious or subconscious, to color your perception of a candidate. For example, seeing that a candidate has frequently changed residential addresses may give the impression that the candidate is unstable or indecisive. As a result, the candidate may be seen as less reliable or more likely to jump jobs. 

In reality, people frequently move addresses, and even states, for a variety of reasons. They may be dealing with housing insecurity, a military spouse, or fleeing domestic violence. Whatever their reason, it likely has no bearing on whether or not they’ll be fit for or committed to the role.  

What you should check

1. Education and employment verification

Although uncommon, candidates do occasionally lie about their educational or employment history. Personally, I’ve only encountered two candidates who lied about these areas. Regardless, On-Ramps recommends verifying both employment and education history before extending an offer to a candidate. And, unlike full background checks, we can run these verifications earlier in the hiring process on multiple candidates since the accuracy of their resume really does speak to their qualifications and character. 

2. Social media (optional)

It has become increasingly common to check a candidate's social media presence for potential red flags. It is important to recognize that social media checks do have the potential to introduce bias into your search. For example, some organizations may make assumptions about a candidate's character based on a photo they’ve posted on Instagram.

As a result, On-Ramps recommends that clients conduct narrow social media checks in order to mitigate the possibility of bias. Specifically, our social media checks look for evidence of violence or racism against a protected class. Although I’ve never seen one of these checks find anything, it’s important to do them so that you’re not faced with any surprises at the end. 

Whatever checks you run, make them equitable

If you do decide to run a background check, which many organizations do, it is important to remember two things. First, take the results with a grain of salt. Remember that a candidate's criminal record or residential history does not tell the full story. Don’t let your imagination run wild without knowing all the facts or let information that does not directly impact the candidate’s ability to perform the role impact your final decision. 

Second, run the same checks on all new hires. We recently had a client who typically hired folks that they already knew in their network. Working with us was the first time that they were really looking outside of their network. As a result, they had not been running education or employment verification checks on new hires. We recommended that they run an employment and education verification check not only on this candidate, but on all candidates moving forward to ensure that all candidates are treated fairly and equitably. 

Before you run any checks, be transparent

Building trust with the candidates early in the process is incredibly important. That’s why we tell candidates early in the process that to get the job, they’ll eventually have to sign off on and pass some type of background check. Being upfront builds trust with the candidate. It also gives the candidate space to share and explain anything that might show up.

The takeaway

Conducting background checks has the potential to introduce bias into the hiring process. But, by being specific about what you are (and aren’t) looking for, you can mitigate that risk and ensure that you’re making fact-based, equitable hiring decisions.