Born in China, educated in France, working in Australia

Conducting background checks on foreign workers can be as complicated as it is important
By Traci Canning
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/31/2007

Pre-employment screening has become a standard best practice for many Canadian companies. But what happens when the applicant was born in China, educated in Europe and worked for a time in Australia? How can employers possibly conduct a background check on this prospective employee?

HR professionals know employment policies need to be practiced equally with all candidates without preference or prejudice. Such standardization protects both the employee and the company. But, in reality, despite the diligence applied to single-country employee verification, there are often large gaps in the screening of multinational workers. When queried about global background checks, responses HR departments received from local offices have included statements like: “Sometimes we do it. It depends,” “Well, I have a friend at the police station” or “We can’t do that here. It’s against the law.” The reason for this spotty coverage is, as HR personnel soon discover, global background screening is not for the faint of heart.

The screening process varies greatly in each country depending on complex factors such as privacy laws and procedural requirements, company culture and local context. These complexities lead to the cardinal rule of international pre-employment screening — get help. But if an employer is inclined to head down the path on its own, here are some points to ponder.

Follow the laws and regulations

Each country has its own laws and processes to govern the information that can be legally obtained, how it can be transmitted and what information is required to complete a particular check.

Generally, these regulations are designed to protect the applicant’s personal information from privacy invasion. An employee who works in Canada is covered by the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act or individual provincial regulations. In the United States, workers are protected by the Fair Credit Reporting Act as well as individual state regulations. Conversely, a person working in the Tokyo office of a Canadian-based company is covered by Japanese privacy laws, which limit the collection and dissemination of personal information. In Hong Kong and across Europe, third parties, including employers, may not request a criminal history from police but applicants may secure one themselves.

Even in countries where criminal checking is permitted, the ways in which data is stored can vary. Some countries store and report data locally, others by province or state and others nationally. And information required to retrieve the data comes with its own nuances. Records in Latin America may be filed with the mother’s maiden name as a unique identifier. In Asia, it’s important to recognize the impact of first name/surname combinations on storage.

Be familiar with the culture

Language, culture and political environment are as important as a particular country’s laws.

A few years ago, HireRight conducted a verification in a country that recently had a change of government. When the applicant’s former supervisor was contacted, he said he didn’t know the applicant and he’d never worked for the company.

The supervisor then contacted the applicant and told him: “A company called asking about you, but don’t worry. I told them I didn’t know you and that you never worked for us.”

The supervisor was simply apprehensive of any kind of investigation because of the practices of the former government. The applicant was able to resolve the issue, but the situation indicates the importance of understanding the local context when conducting international background screenings.

On the flip side, building relationships can yield great benefits for the screening program. HireRight recently conducted a verification in Brazil where the applicant claimed to hold an MBA from a prestigious university. Not only did the registrar verify the degree was false, he called the police to file a complaint against the applicant.

Get high-tech and high touch

While the demands of international verifications are complex, the process is more accessible and cost-effective thanks to technology. Many international screening resources, including in-country research experts and databases, can be accessed over the Internet through an international screening provider. Technology is also improving screening program efficiency and control as web-based employment screening solutions are integrated with applicant tracking systems.

Despite the differences in policy from country to country, HR professionals can leverage screening technology to ensure policies and reporting procedures remain as consistent as possible on a global basis.

As important as the technology is, however, it can never replace the value of local experts. An in-country provider is most familiar with local laws, culture and research procedures and can best navigate the local system. Plus, they are likely to engender trust in local officials and offices.

Combining this kind of hands-on know-how with a global-platform technology can bring country experts into the screening program without losing the value of consistency, audit and control.

Traci Canning is director of international operations for HireRight, where she oversees the firm’s screening and information verification practices for more than 200 countries and territories for the Irvine, Calif.-based company. For more information call (800) 400-2761 or visit

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