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How to navigate the International Background Screening jungle safely and legally
06 Apr 2010
International background screening is rising in prominence and is becoming ever more critical to businesses as borders open up and the battle to hire the best talent intensifies. This article provides an overview of international background screening and an insight into the importance of conducting thorough international employee checks correctly and legally.
So picture this scenario, Mark has been appointed to a new senior role and his employer wants to check his background. He has had an international education and career path which has enabled him to work abroad. He studied in Switzerland and Germany and enjoyed a successful career in Australia, Malaysia and the UK before moving to the US. This will not be a completely unusual scenario to many readers. But how can we effectively check Mark’s credentials to ensure he has been honest and truthful in his application for the role?
Evidently we are going to have to screen Mark in each of those countries mentioned, but how should we do this? Many screening companies are experts on the rules and regulations of their own countries, but many do not know to what extent regulations or background checks differ abroad. Before starting any checks we need to have a clear understanding of the local laws and cultures in each country. For example, in the US criminal records are obtained from county and Federal courts, but it is impractical to conduct a national check by going to every court in the US. But this does not mean that the rest of the world uses the same process. On the other hand in the UK, national checks are possible through official government bodies set up for this purpose, and indeed by law it is illegal to obtain criminal records in any other way, for example by trying to copy the US approach by going to a local court.
When faced with an international check, there are six key areas to consider:
Consent and Release of Information
This is not as straightforward as would seem at first sight. Consent forms need to have a dual purpose. They need to show how information will be treated and who will have access to it. For example it is illegal under European Data Protection laws to send personal information outside EU borders unless certain criteria have been met (e.g. if the recipient of the information is in the US, they would need to be Safe Harbor certified). Another situation could arise where consent is needed to allow third parties other than the company ordering the checks or the screening provider to review the results of a background check. For example, if an employment agency orders the checks but then wishes to share the results with the actual employers.
Each country has its own system for collecting and releasing criminal records data. For many, carrying out a national search is perfectly feasible. However, it’s important to take local regulations into consideration. In Malaysia criminal data is only accessible for specific positions such as security. Yet in Australia and the UK, basic information can be released for any role, and for those working in specific positions such as the financial or health sectors, even more details can be accessed. In Germany though criminal records can only be released to the candidate, and third parties are not allowed to request the Certificate of Good Conduct on behalf of the candidate.
Rules on the release of consumer credit information also differ from country to country. In the US, obtaining credit information through a credit bureau is normal, legal and widely understood (even some states like Oregon are now banning its use for employment screening). Yet in countries such as Italy or Malaysia, credit information is not available for pre-employment screening purposes even though credit bureaus do operate there. In the UK, South Africa and Australia, credit bureaus will only provide for pre-employment screening purposes basic information on court judgments and bankruptcies. Credit information is therefore restricted in those countries to lenders and similar organizations. In fact, guidelines published by the Information Commissioner in the UK prohibit companies that have access to consumer credit information due to their business from using it for recruitment purposes. In many other countries there are no credit bureaus at all to provide any type of financial information on consumers.
Employment Verification / Employment References
The US approach to employment verification is to carry out a verbally conducted check or to use online services (such as The Work Number) to obtain employment information. This is quite often very different to the rest of the world. In Europe, written requests for employment references are preferred. Many employers will actually refuse to discuss these matters over the phone and ask instead to receive a written response. In other European countries such as France and Germany employers provide confirmation letters to all leavers and therefore do not have to deal with requests for verifications or references.
The National Clearing House provides the US with the ability to check the majority of academic degrees. A similar system is available in South Africa. By contrast in Australia institutions tend to include graduate information on their university websites. Elsewhere, for many universities, a written request is the most effective way to conduct a check and to source additional revenue too. In India and China, a copy of the degree certificate is essential to help confirm it is legitimate. In many African countries due to the lack of infrastructure, such as electricity and telecommunications, one has to visit the university in person in order to get confirmation of the degree.
There are thousands of diploma mills around the world that do not have the legal right to award academic degrees. Therefore it is important that the recognition status of the institution is also checked. A degree or diploma mill is an institution that offers substandard or fraudulent degrees in exchange for payment and very little else. Verifying that a candidate graduated from a diploma mill means as much as checking that the candidate paid for their certificate but are not necessary qualified as such.
Supporting the global workforce
As you can see, screening internationally has a number of challenges. Not only are there different procedures and policies in each country, there are language barriers too. It is easy to see how this can become a time intensive and lengthy process. But as we continue to develop as a global workplace, it is critical to understand cultures and laws in other countries so that we continue to be effective and earn respect for the comprehensive service we provide today’s organisations.
Eyal Ben Cohen, Managing Director, Verifile Limited, United Kingdom