How Long Should a Quality Employment Background Check Take?


The profitability of a business depends heavily on the productivity of its people. Every moment affects the bottom line, so it’s tempting to take the fast route in the hiring process. When it comes to employment background checks, however, a speedy screening is a disservice to your organization — especially when screening candidates for high-responsibility job positions. Compromising quality background checks for speed may cause you to miss valuable insights and hire a poor organizational fit who may even cause liabilities for your company.

So how long should you expect a quality employment background check to take?

The Purpose of a Background Check

According to a CareerBuilder survey, 72% of all employers in the U.S. conduct formal background checks on their candidates, which means that 28% of employers still do not. Background checks are an effective safeguard for the employer and their company. As a critical part of the hiring process, the employment background check is intended to:

  • Ensure workplace safety
  • Mitigate liability
  • Protect company reputation
  • Determine professional eligibility
  • Verify candidate claims of experience and qualificatio

The Average Timeframe for a Background Check

Determining these parameters for any given candidate requires a number of different types of checks. The length of time a background check will take depends on:

  • Which checks are conducted
  • The thoroughness of each check
  • Whether or not any concerns arise
  • Industry guideline

An employment background check, for example, for a government job that will grant a level of security clearance can take as long as a year. Meanwhile, the standard check for a basic office job may take as little as 24 business hours or as many as five business days. 

If the employer is using a third-party background check provider (and all should), a portion of this time frame is outside of their control. Background check providers or services that tout an “instant” turnaround time are generally pulling from incomplete or inaccurate databases; you should always opt for thoroughness over speediness.

Factors That Impact a Background Check Timeline

  • Credit checks: The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires that job applicants give written consent for their personal records to be pulled. Delays commonly happen when employers fail to acquire or delay conveying this signed authorization.
  • Educational/employment verifications: It also takes time to conduct verifications and personally contact applicable persons at prior schools and places of employment to receive the requested information.
  • Cross-checking records: Name confusion can be a setback with background checks, as name variations require agencies to cross-check information to make sure they have the right person. It’s crucial to complete this step, as mistaken identities have caused problems for all involved parties in the past and leave the employer and agency vulnerable to litigation

What’s Included in a Thorough Background Check?

Many employers use a third-party employment background check provider to conduct the different types of checks that make up the background check as a whole. A good deal of companies also divide the process of checking a candidate’s qualifications between a third-party provider and an in-house HR team. What are these checks and how does each one contribute to the potential length of the employment background check?

A thorough employment background check is one that deploys most or all of the following types of in-depth checks:

  1. Social Security Trace 
  2. Criminal Database 
  3. Sex Offender Registries 
  4. DMV Records 
  5. Drug Tests 
  6. Credit Score 
  7. Employment and Education History 
  8. Licensing and Certifications 
  9. Social Media

CareerBuilder reports that of the 72% of employers conducting background checks on candidates: 

  • 82% check the candidate’s criminal background
  • 62% manually confirm employment history
  • 60% specifically confirm candidate identity
  • 50% confirm education history and degrees attained
  • 44% check for illegal drug use
  • 38% confirm licensing where applicable
  • Only 29% actually review a candidate’s credit history.

Some employers don’t check all of these aspects and may choose to forgo the credit history or driving record check, for example, because they aren’t relevant to the job. In this case, the background check overall is still a thorough and reliable measure of the candidate’s ability to successfully meet the demands of a position.

Social Security Trace

Social Security traces are the tip of the spear when it comes to professional employee background checks. Social Security is typically the first thing an employer investigates, as a candidate’s Social Security number (SSN) reveals activities the candidate has been involved in, such as rental agreements, car loans, and other background checks. All of these activities are recorded under the SSN, giving the employer insight into where the candidate has lived, where they’ve previously worked, whether or not the SSN is attached to other aliases (such as former surnames), and if the SSN appears in criminal databases.

The turnaround time for a Social Security trace is immediate, and if there are no issues with the returned information, this step can be resolved quickly. If the candidate has had SSN issues before, further verification will be needed to find out if the person’s identity was ever stolen, if the SSN was connected to suspicious activity, and whether the candidate was honest about these from the beginning. These factors will help you determine the eligibility of a candidate.

Criminal Database

The majority (82%) of employers who reported conducting background checks in the aforementioned CareerBuilder survey focused heavily on criminal activity. While “ban-the-box” initiatives across the country seek to ensure the unbiased employability of individuals with criminal histories, there remain certain industries, such as childcare, home care, and caretaking of the elderly in which employers must be especially careful in their hires to protect clientele.

This second step in the background check process includes investigating sex offender registries and this step can be expected to take at least a day. It requires thoroughness and is too often the step in which critical information slips through the cracks because there is no single, catch-all criminal database that is complete or totally accurate.

Verifiers must comb through multiple local, national, and international databases (such as global watch lists, on occasion) to paint a complete picture of a candidate’s criminal history if one exists. Knowing where a candidate has lived is important to criminal searches in each locality. Not every database is automated, so retrieval requests must be processed through a human courthouse clerk. This can affect your turnaround time, but not as much as finding a red flag, which will require further investigation.

DMV Records and Drug Tests

Though this step typically takes up to three business days, employers want to know that their potential employees are trustworthy. If the job description involves piloting a vehicle, DMV records will reveal if the candidate has a history of DUIs, license suspensions, reckless endangerment, or even speeding tickets. This added step is further verification that the candidate is who they say they are.

Drug tests are often outsourced and have a prompt turnaround. These are especially important for high-risk positions in which the employee will be handling heavy machinery or operating vehicles.

Credit Score

Credit checks take only a few minutes, and the rules for conduct varies by state. Each state, however, must abide by the FCRA, which dictates that the candidate must provide written authorization for the check to be run and given the opportunity to contest or correct negative results.

Determining employment eligibility based on credit scores can be a controversial practice in some industries, but many employers do it as a precautionary measure if the job description grants access to large sums of money or highly sensitive materials and information, for example. Does the candidate have a gambling problem? Have they been bankrupt? Do they have a history of exorbitant debt and missed payments? Fraud and embezzlement charges may turn up on criminal records, but credit scores can sometimes provide valuable indicators of potentially risky behavior before it can occur at your organization.

Employment and Education History

Of the employers who reported making a bad hire in the CareerBuilder survey, at least 49% claimed that the new hire’s skills were misrepresented at the time of screening, a fact only discovered post-hire. Six years ago, a report indicated that 66% of employers surveyed had caught some form of falsehood on applicant resumes and applications. That’s up to 85% as of 2017.

With these statistics in mind, it’s clear to see why employers should take the time to verify employment, education history, licensure, and certification that the applicant claims to have attained. The length of time this step will take depends on the processes used and how quickly former supervisors, references, and academic offices can provide the necessary information. As long as no discrepancies are found, this type of check only takes one to three days.

Social Media

If you’ve ever done “online research” on a potential love interest, you know the value someone’s digital footprint can offer. It’s no different for employers, who use social media profiles to spot unsavory or dangerous traits in a prospective hire. The red flags employers look for include:

  • References to drug and alcohol abuse
  • Derogatory hate speech or harassment
  • Signs of bullying, discrimination, or violence
  • Poor grammar, spelling, or communication skills
  • Qualifications that do not match the applicant’s resume
  • Inappropriate photos or other sexually explicit materials
  • Revealing confidential information or unseemly talk about past places of work, coworkers, and/or customer

While social media checks may be considered an informal part of the screening process for now, it’s an increasingly common practice and should take only as long as your standard Google search.

Speed Up Background Checks With VICTIG Solutions

Thorough background checks require time, but there are technological solutions to speed up verification processes. VICTIG’s verification hotline sidesteps the time-wasting yet common “phone tag” problem by allowing contacts to call a hotline at their convenience rather than coordinate with the personal schedule of agency employees. Call us at (866) 933-1658 to learn more or get started.

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