The importance of a policy

A background screening policy is a living document that needs to be continually reviewed as laws, regulatory guidance and company needs change
By Mark Sward
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/01/2018
Background Screening
Background screening is a vital step to ensure the right people are in the right roles. Credit: fotogestoeber (Shutterstock)

It’s true, background screening is complex. Deciding which type of check to run to make sure a candidate is the right one can seem like a daunting task. However, background screening is a vital step to ensure the right people are in the right roles. From employment verification to criminal record checks, it’s a proactive way to add a layer of risk mitigation into a company’s hiring process.

Why is it important?

Background screening protects an organization’s property, assets, reputation, brand and ultimately its biggest asset, its employees. It allows employers to gain a deeper insight into exactly who is looking to join their team.

Many job applications contain inaccurate information, with some containing outright lies about experience, job titles, salaries, education, the eligibility to work in a particular country and the ability to perform the basic functions of the job. Failing to catch these and other problems with a candidate can be costly.

Additionally, the workforce is changing in Canada. Today’s workers may be freelance, temporary, part-time or full-time. Over the last 50 years, the economy has gone from depending on relatively stable employment in the public or private sector to an increased reliance on temporary or contracted labour.

With ever-increasing numbers of contingent workers entering the labour market, and the potential for those workers to have less commitment or loyalty to a single company or industry, it’s important to put an effective, robust program in place to background screen them.

Types of screening

Each organization requires a tailored solution for its hiring process to allow it to mitigate business risks and hire with confidence. There are many types of background screening checks, from reviews of government watch lists to professional sanctions searches to social media screening. Each one brings a different risk-mitigation value to the screening program, while raising unique compliance considerations.

Some of the common background screening checks are:

Criminal checks: These are the most widely used background screening tool in Canada, but they are among the most complex and misunderstood. There are three distinct criminal searches that bring information and value to the screening process: Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) National Repository of Criminal Records (often just called a “criminal record check”), local police information and vulnerable sector verification. Not every candidate should be screened using all three searches. Most employers in Canada find that a search of the National Repository is sufficient to mitigate their risk.

Employment credit checks: A credit check is used to determine if a candidate is financially responsible and to verify identification information. It is not designed to determine debt service ratio, nor will it affect a candidate’s credit score. Financial credit checks should only be done if they are appropriate for the specific position, but using identifying information from a credit file to corroborate a candidate’s identity is a common and useful practice
in Canada.

Reference checks: Reference checks are a long-standing technique for screening job candidates. Conducting 360-degree employee reference checks — including a former supervisor, co-worker and direct report — enables employers to truly gain an understanding of a candidate’s job performance, strengths, weaknesses and interactions with and perception by others. Using a third-party provider is wise as experienced verifications specialists will know what red flags to look for and are better-equipped to spot a bad reference.

Resumé verifications: In a competitive job market, some candidates will do anything they can to get potential employees to notice their resumés. Unfortunately, some of the content may be questionable. Education and employment verification services contact school registrars and human resources or payroll departments with past employers to make sure a candidate’s information is factual and free of embellishment or exaggeration.

Social media checks: Social media screening is very valuable to recruiters, hiring managers and employers, and is almost a reflex in an era of ubiquitous social media membership and activity. It humanizes candidates and makes them more than just words on a resumé. Vetting social media profiles can provide unique insight into a candidate and may reveal potentially unlawful, violent, racist,
intolerant or otherwise distasteful behaviours that would not appear during the interview process and could affect an employer’s reputation. However, social media may contain personal information that goes beyond what a prospective employer can lawfully collect, so it must carefully consider when, who and how to conduct social media checks.

Creating a policy

A background screening policy should first define its scope and purpose. Especially where it applies in multiple jurisdictions, it may be useful to note the laws that apply to different parts of the program (and those laws should, of course, be taken into account while writing the policy).

The policy should then outline the practical details of the program, which may be broken out into standard operating procedures for different business units.

Below are a few items to consider when writing the policy:

•Determine which types or levels of employee will be subject to which background check services and why. It is important to justify each type of personal information collected in the context of the position.

•Determine when background checks will be conducted. You may want to collect certain information early in the process, but hold off until after a candidate has been selected to collect more sensitive personal information.

•Explain the process for how the background checks will be performed and reviewed. Will a third-party vendor be used? How does ordering work? How is consent collected from the candidate? Who reviews results, and what is the escalation process in case adverse information is found? Who has the ultimate decision-making authority?

•Include a process to protect the privacy and confidentiality of information that is included in background forms and reports, and respect candidates’ privacy rights, namely by ensuring they are given advance notice of (and, if necessary, provide written consent for) the background check, are informed of adverse information that’s found, and have an opportunity to review and dispute personal information collected from third parties.

It is crucial to understand the various federal, provincial and territorial rules around privacy and human rights in Canada and how they affect employment screening. The background screening policy must be developed with these rules in mind to limit an employer’s exposure to complaints or legal claims that could result in time-consuming investigations, expensive settlements or harm to a company’s brand.

It’s also wise to write the policy with the company’s risk profile in mind, have it vetted by legal counsel, and then follow it consistently with all new hires. Not only will a carefully crafted policy help guide a business to stay compliant from the start, it will help the employer explain the program to candidates and defend it against any complaints.

A background screening policy is a living document that needs to be continually reviewed as laws, regulatory guidance and company needs change. Like all company policies, an annual review and update is a good practice.

Every employer and every role is different, so the checks that make up a screening program will vary. It’s recommended employers speak to a specialized background screening vendor and outside legal counsel for guidance in designing its program.

While some background screening can be conducted in-house, third-party providers can provide access to information that may not otherwise be accessible, and provide subject-matter expertise in the design of a compliant, efficient and consistent program. A screening company can also leverage its size, technology and global footprint to speed up the process and reduce time to hire.

Mark Sward is director of privacy at Sterling Talent Solutions in Montreal. For more information, visit

Add Comment

  • *
  • *
  • *
  • *