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Background Checks & Ethics

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Employers routinely use background checks to ensure that prospective workers will be a positive and safe fit in their workplaces. Background checks can turn up potential red flags, such as a criminal history, violent incidents, or other unsavory aspects that could be detrimental for the company and other employees. Because professional background checks have become more pervasive and thorough in the modern workplace, not everyone agrees on how much checking is fair or ethical. Holding prospective workers accountable for crimes committed years ago, or digging into someone’s personal finances, seems unethical, according to some viewpoints.

Protecting Employees

Although the privacy of prospective workers must be protected, employers must keep the safety and security of their current employees intact, according to Business Management Daily. You can’t run background checks without permission from the individual being researched, but there is an ethical obligation to make sure that other workers continue to have a safe work environment. Employers also have a legal obligation, since employees can sue for negligent hiring if unsafe workers are hired without background checks.

Ethical Vendors

Employers have an ethical obligation to contract only with licensed providers who understand the legal restrictions pertaining to background checks, according to Knowing restrictions associated with the Fair Credit Reporting Act and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, including the protections they afford consumers and potential workers, helps these companies complete their research with legal and ethical boundaries. Firms should be able to keep a potential employee’s sensitive data protected to avoid identity theft and compromised confidentiality.

The Informal Scroll

Not all background checks involve formal searches into your police records, according to The New York Times. It has become increasingly acceptable to do a personal online search on new business associates -- or even social acquaintances -- before meeting for lunch or in the conference room. These informal background checks are more likely to unearth things like personal blogs, wedding announcements or campaign contributions. However, criminal histories can still surface. Although many businesses and employees expect that a certain level of undercover online sleuthing will take place during the getting-to-know-you process, its ethical considerations are unclear. Although the information might be public, there might be little connection to responsibilities associated with the job at hand.

'Likes,' Friends, Ethics

Social networking sites represent an ethical gray area when it comes to background checks, according to Ethica Publishing. Potential employees might feel comfortable knowing that their driving records, educational histories or personal finances will be examined as part of their background checks. Whether employer viewing of personal social networking accounts is ethical remains debatable. Although users might adjust their privacy settings so that employers can’t view what web pages or status updates they have “liked,” some information is public. Ethical or not, employers could decide that a person’s private or blocked setting indicates that he has something to hide.


Morgan Rush is a California journalist specializing in news, business writing, fitness and travel. He's written for numerous publications at the national, state and local level, including newspapers, magazines and websites. Rush holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of California, San Diego.

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