A Rush to Judgment

Thursday, December 6, 2012
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It's always discouraging when a promising applicant is denied a job after a criminal background check unearths a conviction in his or her past. But when an applicant is denied because a background check of his or her name turns up a conviction for someone else who simply shares the same moniker, it can quickly turn discouragement into a migraine -- for both the applicant and the HR department.

As someone with a fairly common Irish name (indeed, there are 3,215 Michael O'Briens currently listed on LinkedIn as of this writing), I completely understand the angst of those whose attempts at employment get thwarted in this way. In my time as a Michael O'Brien, I've read news stories of my namesakes doing everything from running rampant on three-day crime sprees to running for elected office, so I can only imagine what my other doppelgangers may be getting into while I'm not paying attention.

The issue recently garnered national attention when the Today show's Jeff Rossen reported on the topic in mid-November in an aired piece titled "Background Check Firms Making Errors."

Rossen's segment included the stories of three job applicants whose background checks turned up the rap sheets of their less-upstanding namesakes and knocked them out of consideration for a position before the mix-up could be resolved. In the electronic version of the story on NBC's website, he writes, "Experts say that if [a case of mistaken identity] happens to you, you don't have many options. You can contact the background-check company and dispute it. Problem is, they have 30 days to investigate. By then, the job could be long gone. The only other option is to sue."

His report, of course, incited the ire of the Washington-based National Association of Professional Background Screeners, particularly Chairman Fred Giles, who responded with a press release saying that Rossen's report focused "on a small number of unfortunate instances in an attempt to indict an entire industry that is critical to the safety of our homes and workplaces."

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 After noting the organization's 58 specific standards of compliance for its members, Giles added that "employers have a legal responsibility under the Fair Credit Reporting Act to acknowledge these disputes and to follow a specific process for resolving them, and that process should protect the applicant's pursuit of the position."

But for both employers that receive a positive "hit" on an applicant's criminal background and the media writing about the challenges of background screening, the message should be the same: Don't rush to judgment.

Michael O'Brien can be contacted at

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