Popular crime shows are notorious for emphasizing how critical fingerprints are in nailing down an individual’s culpability. However, it’s increasingly clear that this perception is feeding into the business world, as many companies (particularly in healthcare, education, security and others) are being required by state and, in some cases, federal legislation to use FBI fingerprint background checks for employment screening.

However, this process is inconsistent with best practices for employment background screening. Not only does an FBI report fail to protect an applicant in the same way the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) does, it’s also based upon data that is not always fully accurate or current and complete.

The entire issue surrounding fingerprint screening has been hitting headlines lately, in particular due to the protests of app-based ridesharing companies Uber and Lyft. These companies recently left the city of Austin, Texas, after being required by law to fingerprint their drivers instead of relying on, what they argued were, more accurate and efficient means of employee background screening.

To be clear, an employer can only run a report through the FBI database if they have specific statutory authority to do so. However, as a company that delivers background screening services, we think it’s important to explore the issues surrounding this topic, no matter what industry regulations govern your business operations.

Accuracy and Completeness

While the FBI database used in fingerprint checks is the largest source of criminal history information, it doesn’t necessarily provide an employer with the whole story. A 2006 government report on criminal history background checks states that the FBI database is not necessarily a complete account of all criminal history in the US. In part, this condition is because many state records are not included (state submission is voluntary) or, if they are included, are not regularly updated. Furthermore, many arrest records (as many as 50 percent) included in the database don’t include the outcome of the conviction.

There have been measures suggested in response to these deficiencies. In particular, legislation was introduced into the U.S. Congress in 2013 to safeguard against inaccuracies when FBI background checks are used for employment purposes. The bill proposed more in-depth verification, as well as authorization by and notification of the applicant. Unfortunately, the bill was never enacted.

This issue of accuracy isn’t exclusive to FBI fingerprint background checks. The same issue is found in state criminal record repositories.

Consumer Protections

One of the biggest concerns of FBI fingerprint checks is that they are not regulated under the FCRA, which was put in place to protect consumers from adverse action due to inaccurate information, as well as to decrease (within reason) the number of barriers to employment for people with previous criminal history.

The FCRA plays a huge role in the screening industry; just look at the rise of FCRA lawsuits against employers. The Act requires that employers get clear authorization from the consumer in question before running a report, and that the results of the report must be furnished if the decision to deny employment or take other adverse employment action is made. Furthermore, the candidate is given time to dispute the results if reported information is wrong or incomplete.

But FBI fingerprint checks aren’t held to the same standards, because the original purpose of the databases used in fingerprinting wasn’t for employment screening at all, but for law enforcement and criminal justice. Recommendations from the Attorney General in the aforementioned 2006 report suggest that fingerprinting reports be held to the same FCRA-level standards when used for non-criminal justice purposes, but any formal accountability is lacking.

Issues of Practicality

Obviously, there are some major issues being raised regarding the subject of using FBI fingerprint background checks for employment screening. However, there are also some minor issues of practicality that are important to keep in mind.

The first of these is turnaround time. The challenge of finding better candidates in a competitive market must be met with practical solutions, one of which is a speedier hiring process. The background check is a critical component of the hiring process, but it also adds time. That’s why it makes sense to partner with a screening firm that has industry-leading turnaround time (without sacrificing the accuracy). FBI fingerprinting, on the other hand, is typically a slower process.

Additionally, background checks run by a Consumer Reporting Agency (CRA) can deliver a range of customization, unlike fingerprinting, which only checks for criminal history with a highly variable degree of accuracy. When hiring new employees, criminal history isn’t the only factor you need to be aware of; you may also need employment and education verification, drug and occupational health screening, driving records, and more.

Should Employers Use FBI Fingerprint Background Checks for Employment Screening?

Ultimately, your specific industry and, sometimes, specific state/city requirements will largely determine what kind of background check you have to run. If you must screen applicants through FBI fingerprinting, it may be a valuable best practice to also run CRA screening to gain a bigger, more complete, more accurate picture of your candidate’s background. Hiring the right person is vital to your business, so informed background screening decisions are key.