Discrimination and the Background Screening Industry

discrimination background screening

discrimination background screening

A couple of months ago Barry Nixon, an eminent figure in the background screening world, posted a fascinating article about discrimination and the difficult questions the background screening industry faces regarding its role in propagating it. It’s an excellent read and forces those of us who make our livelihood through the industry to challenge some topics we’d perhaps rather avoid.

I was inspired by Barry’s examination of the US situation. This spurred me to take a look at the parallels with the UK background screening industry. Barry’s article focuses on race, I will look through the lens of an age-old plague on British culture: class. That’s not to say we can claim to have cured the problem of racism. However, class seems to remain a peculiarly British preoccupation.

Perceptions of class

A 2019 poll by the British government revealed 44% of people believe that where you end up in society is largely determined by your background. Only 35% believe that everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and hard work will take them. The majority of people also consider themselves working class. This is starkly contrasted with Americans. 70% of Americans consider themselves middle class. Moreover, 69% of people surveyed by the Brookings Institution agreed with the following statement. “People are rewarded for intelligence and skill”. This indicates the firmest belief in meritocracy of 27 nations surveyed. Even despite the US and the UK both having some of the lowest levels of social mobility in the world.

Well, this is all well and good, but what is the relevance to the background screening industry? As Barry writes:

“The background industry thrives on and makes money by providing information to employers to help them make hiring decisions. This information provided employers includes information gathered about an individual’s encounter with the criminal justice system, eg., arrest, booking and convictions, which are based on a Police officer’s decision. If the officer’s decision is based on racism, the information from this encounter is then baked into the information that is collected and reported by background screening companies. This is no small matter because criminal records are by far the most prevalent type of background check conducted by employers.”

W. Barry Nixon, Wake Up Call for the Background Screening Industry

Responsibilities of the background screening industry

I’ll avoid delving too much further into the sociology of the matter, as well as race. In the UK, those stuck in the worse off rungs of society are far more likely to have a criminal record. And as shown above, our society most certainly still has “rungs”. For UK checks too, criminal background checks are the most common and part of every package of screening. This is likely to have a negative impact on hiring decisions in almost every single instance. This can lead to a negative cycle of recidivism if an individual cannot find work. One may argue that the background screening industry is not at fault here. It’s a valid argument – but we can affect change without shouldering all the responsibility. If the government wants prison to be rehabilitation rather than punishment, there needs to be legal changes, particularly concerning the 1974 Rehabilitation of Offenders Act.

Furthermore, a particularly prescient example is the tendency for credit screenings. In the UK, these will turn up county court judgements (CCJs), bankruptcies, and individual voluntary agreements (IVAs). With our country economically ravaged by the ongoing pandemic, the number of individuals who find themselves slipping into insolvency despite their best efforts is increasing, as joblessness soars. This, of course, disproportionately affects the financially worse-off. People who may have been in a precarious situation even before the devastation of COVID-19. A negative credit check is not as disastrous to hiring decisions as a failed criminal background check. Nonetheless, the negative effects on employment are serious. Another instance which can lead to a vicious cycle where an individual’s circumstances become more and more desperate.

Is it our problem?

But as I mentioned above, isn’t this a problem for the government, rather than our industry? “Don’t shoot the messenger”, as the common adage goes. However, background screening companies have the chance to make a positive impact. It is right that we ask ourselves if we are comfortable doing nothing when the work that we do can have life-changing consequences for candidates – albeit indirectly.

How we can help

Like Barry, I am in no way suggesting that background screening companies cease their operations. Still, his article highlights some excellent ways in which we can help. Through providing context to the information we give, we can mitigate potentially unnecessary negative decisions. I want to reiterate his call for the PBSA, as the representative of the industry, to begin initiating conversations and championing causes that could lead to a fairer background screening process.

Two particular points Barry raised stood out to me as critical to a responsible screening company. Many HR professionals are not aware of the potential biases in the criminal justice system. We have the ability to educate and provide information that could allow people to see in shades of grey rather than black-and-white. He suggests a PBSA task force could develop a document “about race, bias, and the criminal justice system”, which I broadly agree with. However, in the UK, I feel “background” fits more than “race”.

 Furthermore, he mentions GoodHire’s practice of allowing candidates the chance to give a statement. This allows them the chance to explain any adverse information that background screening is likely to uncover. Not only does this allow a candidate to show honesty, but it is also particularly relevant during a time when a global pandemic is destroying many people’s livelihoods. I would go one step further and say that, where possible, background screening companies could also provide context to any negative information they uncover – although I recognise this is not realistic in many scenarios. Credence already practices providing as much context to our reports as possible.


 I echo calls for our governing body, the PBSA, to advocate discussion. To raise the difficult topic of our industry’s contribution to discrimination. To encourage companies to do our part to help combat it. At this time, when so many face desperate situations, the background screening industry has a lot of power to do good.