How to run a background check: a step-by-step guide

Here’s a step by step guide to performing background checks for your organization:

First, decide who will be background screened.

The best practice is to background screen every employee and volunteer who will be interacting with children in any way. We’ve heard the arguments why organizations choose to NOT run a background check on volunteers. Here’s some of the common reasons:

  • It costs money and we’re a non-profit with a limited budget
  • It takes time, so it restricts people from volunteering at the last minute when we need someone
  • It is an inconvenience for the volunteer
  • If we background check volunteers, it will limit the number of people who will volunteer.

Think about that last one. Background checks will limit the number of people who will volunteer. Why? Will it stop people from volunteering because they are not willing to submit to a background check? Why? Does your organization really want someone volunteering who won’t submit to a background check?  

The organization that wants to be stringent in protecting children will background check ALL staff and volunteers, not simply those they think will be in official unsupervised roles. We’ve known organizations to go so far as to require external vendors to background check their employees, e.g. the soda machine vendor or construction crews, as they can easily be in an environment where they interact with children frequently.

Next, choose which kind of background check you will use.

There are two major kinds of background checks: Database Searches and Fingerprint Screening. Deciding which kind of background check may be determined by your state or municipality. For example, some states mandate a fingerprint-based background check of all school personnel and coaches, regardless whether they are paid employees or volunteers, so your organization may have no choice. It must do a fingerprint screening and very likely an FBI level fingerprint screening for federal crimes. 

Database Searches

Database searches are one of the most common types of background screening for organizations. Many people choose this option since it’s relatively fast and simple. You can complete a form and have a database search conducted based on the information they provided in the application. The database search usually checks sex offender registries and criminal databases. Credible and accredited screening vendors will check state and most importantly county level criminal databases based on the address history provided by your applicants. An incomplete, or inaccurate residential history could lead to an incomplete screening.  

With the absence of any fingerprint-based searches, database searches are normally conducted based on the applicant’s social security number as the unique identifier. This leads to an often-uncomfortable topic for organizations, but you need to know, that if your organization has volunteers who do not have a social security number based on their immigration status, your organization may have challenges in effectively running an accurate background check.  

If your organization allows background screening to be done without a social security number, the database check will be solely based on a name check. This means it will likely be virtually useless, especially for applicants with common names. And if you choose to run an international background check, if even available, have low expectations as other countries do not have the same level of records found in the U.S. 

Fingerprint Screening

In an ideal world and with unlimited funding, fingerprint screening is the best way to provide an accurate background check. Fingerprint screening is not dependent on a social security number or name searches. Fingerprints are unique, and they are recorded by law enforcement at all levels from local municipalities to the FBI and federal agencies. Therefore, if your organization can do fingerprints, this is the best choice. If not possible, then seriously consider what requirements will be enforced with a database only search. Your screening vendor can provide guidance.  

Some organizations do both a fingerprint and database search. Why?  

Database checks can typically be processed fast, usually between 1-3 business days. In this case, running both database and fingerprint searches gives the organization a solid database search “quickly” so they can make a preliminary authorization for the employee and volunteer to start their position while awaiting the in-depth fingerprint, which will likely match the results of the database check. This double search may be a good strategy. 

FBI Background Checks

We’ve come across organizations over the years who exclusively rely on FBI background checks. Unfortunately, a common misconception is that the FBI has a national database of ALL crime records in the U.S. That is definitely not the case – the FBI has federal records only. Any state and local crimes will not come up on an FBI background check.

There is a national criminal database but not all jurisdictions report to it so there are gaps. This is why your screening vendor will recommend both an FBI background check and local database record searches. It’s our understanding that most criminal records are at the county level and therefore those should be a must check. 

Reference Checks

As part of background screening best practices, some organizations opt to do reference checks for both employees and volunteers. The question is, are they worth it?

To be clear, references must be an addition to background checks, NEVER a replacement for themWhile a background check will give your organization facts about the criminal records, references can be a tool for you to get a more personal sense of the applicant. Like employment reference checks, most people will have the sense to only provide good references. 

Still, references are a potentially worthwhile part of the process.

Finally, order the background checks and ensure that you are always in compliance.

Your screening vendor will be your best resource to guide you in the current options on how to run a background check, as screening is highly regulated and subject to continual legislative changes, both nationally and locally. 

Compass Child Protection provides integrated background screening in the same platform as training, so you can track compliance and order reports all in once place:

→ for large organizations (>100 employees and volunteers)
→ for small organizations (<100 employees and volunteers)