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How Reliable are Free Online Background Checks?

People have always used search engines for research,  but in more recent times there has been a growing trend to use search engines to find out facts about people. Recruiters routinely use search engines like Google to conduct free online background checks. In some circumstances it might even be used as a substitute for a professional candidate reference check. But, is this wise? Are free online background checks reliable enough for pre-employment screening?

Google

Let’s start with Google, which is perhaps the most common starting point for a spur-of-the-moment, online background check.  Using a name search you can usually find useful pre-employment screening data about the subject, such as age, qualifications, achievements, photos, press/industry mentions etc. But, how reliable is this information? 

Since a lot of this data is likely to be third-party-generated you can’t be sure that the data subject has approved the publication of the content or even endorsed it’s accuracy.  Relying on googled personal information, which later proves to be inaccurate, could lead to embarrassment in the interview room, a poor hiring decision, or potential legal action from a wronged candidate. 

Also, since 2014 as part of the EUs, ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling, data subjects can request that inaccurate or embarrassing information about them be removed from internet searches.  This means that data subjects may have had adverse information, (which may be relevant to employment), removed from the search.  

So, while you may feel like a cunning private investigator, when doing a free online background check of candidates, the reality is that internet searches of this nature are not comprehensive, accurate or endorsed by the data subject. Personal information derived from these sources should always be double-checked with a trusted primary source, (such as a referee or the candidate themselves), before being relied upon.

Self-Published Personal Data

Some data subjects will self-publish data on their own blog, twitter account or social media profile, which might be useful for pre-employment screening purposes. Such information could be related to their qualifications, education, professional experience and achievements, views, opinions and analysis.  How reliable is self-published personal data?

Broadly speaking, self-published personal data is likely to be authentic, e.g. produced by the data subject. But, it’s not necessarily designed to be admissible for an actual employment application, and so it’s unlikely to be up-to-date, comprehensive or produced to a job application standard. For this reason, it remains a good starting point but employers should still defer to the candidates up-to-date CV and referees. What free online background checks are undoubtedly good for is for discovering anomalies or inconsistencies between data sources which warrant further investigation.

Linked-In

Off all the social-media sites, Linked-in is probably seen as the most reliable source of online background checking about an employee. Why? This is because it is a professional, business network which is generally used for business promotional purposes. 

But, even this medium has it’s limitations as a channel for online background checking as part of an pre-employment screening process. For example, research published on personneltday.com of just over 2,000 adults found that just 34% of respondents considered their Linked-In profiles to be up to date, 46% said it was out of date and 20% don’t use it any more. Of those with an up to date profile,  9% had embellished their career achievements on their profile.

The size of the candidate’s network may not be that reliable either since nearly a third of respondents admitted to accepting a connection request from someone they did not know, while 16% make connection requests of people they don’t know. Large networks on Linked-in are not a reliable indicator of competency at building quality networks. 

The survey also found that 1 in 10 respondents were recommending others in return for a recommendation and 7% had written flattering or exaggerated recommendation as a favour to a friend. This means that some Linked-In users are gaming the recommendations system which means that is is not a totally reliable medium either.

Despite, it’s drawback in reliability, Linked-In remains a useful medium for researching applicants, but it is just a starting point and it should not be taken at face value. An up to date CV still remains the best channel for getting reliable information about a candidate. 


Linked-in, Google, and other online mediums are not the most reliable means to conduct a candidate background check. In using these sources for online background checks employees may be relying on information that is inaccurate, out-of-date, embellished and sometimes not even endorsed by the data subject. Employers should therefore defer to more tried and tested means of pre-employment screening using more reliable methodology such as an up-to-date CV, candidate reference checking and/or using a trusted reference checking agency.


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