images (5).jpgChances are that if you’ve recently changed jobs, you’ve been subjected to a background check. More than 90% of employers now conduct some sort of background check on prospective employees, and about 60% also perform a credit check before they decide whether or not to hire you. But Job seekers are beginning to complain and some have even won lawsuits against companies that have denied or terminated their employment as a result of a background check.

The availability of cheap, accessible information over the internet has made it a tempting practice for employers to research each and every applicant before choosing an employee, and it is as common now as checking an applicant’s employment references. It’s perfectly legal, and in many instances certain checks are essential for the safety and security of the company and its existing employees. Criminal checks, for example, are particularly useful for this purpose. If the job involves handling a large amount of cash, a credit check can help identify which applicants pose the greatest security risk.

Certain professions use background checks much more frequently than others. Employment in the child care sector or any medical profession will automatically subject you to a commercial background check. Law enforcement jobs, security jobs and banking careers also require background checks as a matter of procedure.

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[PAGE][/PAGE]However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission warns that whenever an employer uses the information obtained through a background check to make an employment decision, they are required to adhere to all of the anti-discrimination laws in effect at the time the decision is made. This means the employer cannot discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, or gender; any physical disability or genetic information on file; or age (in the case of an applicant 40 years of age or older). For example, subjecting only applicants of a certain race to credit checks can get you in trouble with the EEOC pretty quickly.

While some information received as part of a background check is fairly accurate, much of it isn’t. Court records, such as marriage and divorce records, are almost always correct, as are criminal records and credit reports. But other information such as relatives, known addresses and business associations are estimated to be incorrect nearly 50% of the time, making that information practically worthless.

In one such case, Genesis Healthcare, one of the largest health care organizations in the world, was found guilty of violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), which oversees the collection and the distribution of consumer data. According to the lawsuit, a woman was denied employment when a background check incorrectly identified her as having been convicted of child abuse. Additionally, Genesis Healthcare failed to provide the applicant with a copy of the background check and advise her of her rights regarding the decision.

While not technically a reporting agency, social media sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook do nothing to protect your employment rights, either. For example, it is illegal to ask about an applicant’s religion, marital status or sexual preference on an application or at an interview. The laws were written to protect applicants, but social media is helping employers to circumvent these laws. Maybe the company can’t openly ask the applicant, but it does it matter when a quick peek at an applicant’s social media page can answer many of those questions before an interview is even scheduled? Employers see this as a great time-saver, but many applicants see it as an unfair hiring practice. In addition, employers have been known to punish applicants for not participating in their own persecution; because in an alarming number of cases the lack of a Facebook page results in the resume being tossed straight into the trash can.

For employers, background checking an applicant is simply common sense. If done conscientiously and within the limits of the law, a bit of research can save you from disaster. But as an applicant, the slightest mistake on your part or on the part of the reporting agency can be equally disastrous.