Why Do Background Investigations Take So Long?

Tasha D. Dyson Background Investigation


Time is the number one challenge for employers in the background investigation process. That was one finding in the study entitled “How Human Resource Professionals View the Use and Effectiveness of Background Screening Methods” published by NAPBS and HR.com in June 2018. You can read the entire report here.

What wasn’t reported was the expectation about how long a background investigation should take. In our experience turn-around time (or TAT) is driven by the scope of work. The roles and responsibilities of the position being filled should always define the scope of work of the background investigation.

We are surrounded by lightning-fast technology, so why do some background investigations so long? Unlike what is portrayed on TV and in the movies, records are not all automated and instant.

Background screening, like any other business process, is a delicate balance between quality, cost, and time.

Criminal Records

First, there is no such thing as a public, comprehensive, nationwide criminal record check that searches all courts and jurisdictions.

Many states have a single, searchable criminal database online that lists felony and misdemeanor convictions. In states that don’t have a statewide database, there are many individual counties and jurisdictions that have online searches that at least list felony and misdemeanor convictions.

You can alleviate some of the delay by considering the following choices:

  • Do you want to know about arrests/charges or just convictions?
  • Do you want to know about traffic offenses and infractions or just felonies and misdemeanors?
  • Are you willing to pay more for faster results from an on-site researcher?
Employment Verification

Employment verification is probably the slowest component of most background investigations. There is no single database available to the public that lists all previous employers of an applicant.

In some cases, the previous employer uses The Work Number or another third-party verification system to process requests. If a company does not use a third-party verification service, the investigator usually calls or emails the Human Resources department (or similar) of the organization.

When considering the TAT of employment verification of your background investigation service provider, you should ask:

  • How many attempts are made to verify employment?
  • What methods are used to contact employers?
  • If information is not available from the HR representative of the company, are alternative methods tried?
  • How are these alternative methods validated and reported?
  • If information is received after the “final” report is delivered, is the report updated?
Personal and Professional References

In general, personal and professional references respond more quickly than employers when asked about the applicant. These are people who have been asked by the applicant (hopefully) to provide information about their character, reputation, and work habits.

Therefore, as will all other forms of information, it is essential to discuss the scope with your background investigation services provider.

  • How many responses are needed for you to consider the report complete?
  • If you ask the applicant for three references, do you expect to receive responses from all three?
  • What methods are used to contact references?
  • If the contact information for the applicant is not correct, is alternative contact information located?
  • How are these alternative methods validated and reported?
  • If information is received after the “final” report is delivered, is the report updated?
Other reasons for delays, include:
  • Driving records (often by mail)
  • Frozen credit reports (which must be re-requested)
  • Education verification for closed institutions or local school districts

The key to reducing delays is to work with your background investigation service provider to address:

  • Efficient processes for collecting key information from the applicant
  • Scope of work as defined by the expected roles and responsibilities of the position being filled
  • Interim or partial reports (with limited information that may support the hiring process)
  • Definition of a “complete” or “final” report
  • Information received by the investigator after the report is “final”

It’s also essential to discuss immediate disqualifiers with your service provider. These should be based on your organization’s tolerance for risk and the roles and responsibilities of the position being filled.

For example, if an applicant has a misdemeanor conviction, you could ask that the investigation stop and you be notified. If the applicant pool for your industry has a high incidence of misdemeanor convictions, convictions for non-violent crimes may not be a “deal-breaker”. (This identification of “red flags” often saves money as well as time.)

Finally, you may have to simply adjust your expectations for the length of time it takes to conduct a thorough, accurate background investigation. In this age of instant information, it is tempting to believe that all the pertinent information about your candidate is available and accurate at the push of a button. Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple.

Protus3 is your resource for background screening support. We’ve been helping companies make better hiring decisions for over 30 years.