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Why Background Checks Don’t Work

Employers Ignorant to Legitimate Sources for Information

Most employers claim to conduct comprehensive background checks on their potential employees. This may serve to put some new hires on alert, but in many cases such in-depth checks are overlooked or limited in scope. In other circumstances the wrong sources are evaluated altogether.

In an effort to educate and provide tools to employers, the Federal Trade Commission has published information designed specifically to offer guidance for verifying education degrees. The publication, Avoid Fake Degree Burns by Researching Academic Credentials, lays out a common sense and comprehensive approach that gives businesses a basic jump off point.

The FTC advises employers to consider the following factors when interviewing and considering job applicants:

The Bigger Problem

Background checks fail due to a systemic lack of information on a couple of levels. First, the array of information required to assemble a personal profile on a job applicant is overwhelming for many employers, especially small business owners with little time on their hands. What kinds of personal information may employers access, and what oversteps privacy boundaries? Questions like these pose real information obstacles.1

Secondly, the general lack of widespread information on diploma mills and accreditation mills has led to a serious level of ignorance among employers. Until recently the term “accredited” had value when attached to a college or university. But accreditation mills have changed all that; problem is many people, including employers, don’t know. In our article on “Accreditation,” we examine the devaluation of the term “accreditation” and the proliferation of false information.

Information Headwaters

The FTC’s checklist makes a serious attempt to provide the right information on how fake degree suppliers and job recruits may mislead employers. Employers go wrong when they verify college degrees with the obligatory phone call to the college. Not enough. Degree verification services—an added feature of diploma mills—provide bogus verification.

Extensive online research is the only current way to ferret out an unaccredited degree supplier. In order for an employer to exhaust the background check on listed educational institutions, he or she must cross-reference the following:

Until such a time that the essential information on diploma mills—like that above—is simplified, packaged and marketed to a wider audience, chances are good that bogus degrees will continue to slip through on background checks. Already enough evidence exists to suggest that even the simplest criminal background checks are erroneous, ineffective, and often just overlooked. If criminal databases are this flimsy, how can one expect educational data be legitimate and trustworthy?

  1. “Employment Background Checks: A Guide for Small Business Owners,” Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, http://www.privacyrights.org/fs/fs16b-smallbus.htm, June 2005.

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