Time was when hiring workers wasn't a particularly perilous activity. Pick a loser and at worst, the company might suffer internal productivity or morale problems. Today, however, the wrong choice could put your company at risk of liability suits. For that reason, most legal consultants now advise companies to get all applicants to sign a release giving them permission to run a complete background check.
But don't confuse a background check with calling references. Given the extreme limitations that are attached to reference checking, you can't expect a reference to do more than confirm the dates of employment, salary and job title (nor should you offer any more info than that if you're asked to provide a reference). Doing otherwise is simply too risky: Lawsuits have been filed not only against companies that have given bad references but also against those that offered the highest recommendations! In one case a candidate hired with glowing references turned out to be dangerous; the company that provided the reference was promptly sued for misrepresentation. In another, a company that fired an employee for cause but gave that same person a good reference was slapped with a wrongful termination suit for firing him in the first place.
You can't expect to get much information by calling references, but you can dig up information other ways. Often industry-specific recruiters have the personal contacts to check a candidate's background and work history off the record. You can also take advantage of publicly available records, but you must be thorough.
Criminal back ground checks, for instance, shouldn't limited to your state. When ever possible, run a check in all of the states where the candidate has lived. (The states' computer net works are not all connected.) One small Florida company hired an administrative assistant whose responsibilities included preparing checks for payment of invoices. She prepared a couple of checks made out to herself, forged a partner's signature, and disappeared with several thousand dollars. They found out later that she was wanted in Tennessee for check forgery. An investment in a multi- state background check clearly would have paid off.
Investigate the driving records of anyone who will drive a company vehicle. Do this not only for the truck drivers and messengers on your payroll, but anyone, including managers, who might have access to a company car.
For prospective employees who will have access to cash or inventory (which can be tu rned into cash), run a public records check. Knowing that your candidate owns a $750,000 house and an $80,000 car doesn't tell you anything by itself. But should your review of his/her salary history show an average annual income of $50,000 over the last five years, the discrepancy might set off alarm bells.
Credit reports can provide similar insight. A past bankruptcy or one overextended credit card indicates nothing about a candidate's ability to do the job or his/her trustworthiness. However, depending upon the specific job responsibilities, a report that shows eight overextended credit cards with multiple late payments might indicate that you should get more information about this candidate or consider him/her for a different position.
Don't for get to check education, certification and license claims. If you require a master's degree or a forklift operator's license for a particular position, verify the candidate's claim with the issuing organization. A copy of the license or diploma is not good enough—they're too easily counterfeited. You'll be paying for a qualified employee. Make sure you get the real thing.