Fingerprint Background Checks vs. Regular Ones: Why Fingerprints Fail to Make Checks Better

Max Wesman

Are fingerprint-based FBI background checks better than “traditional” background checks? That question comes up again and again, thanks in part to the taxi industry’s efforts to derail the high-speed rise of ride-sharing services.

Yet misinformation and misunderstandings about both the FBI database and the services offered by employment screening companies (like GoodHire) abound. This just-the-facts review of fingerprint background check issues will help you cut through the hype.

1. How Accurate Are Fingerprint Background Checks?

Despite the FBI database’s reputation as the “gold standard” for criminal background checks, a 2013 NELP study points out that 50% of the records in the FBI databases are missing disposition information. That means a fingerprint background check could return arrests for which a person was later cleared or for charges that were later reduced (from felony to misdemeanor, for example).

Instead of fingerprints, traditional background checking companies use a person’s name and date of birth to search a variety of data sources, including online state and county criminal record databases, sex offender registries, and most wanted lists.

The most thorough checks include in-person searches at county courthouses. Since not all counties in the U.S. make criminal records available online, in-person searches are the best way to ensure the most accurate and up-to-date records available.

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2. Are FBI Records Complete?

Not every criminal record is associated with a fingerprint. Because the FBI database only accepts records tied to a fingerprint, an FBI check won’t return records that lack a fingerprint. NAPBS also points out that “not all state criminal records or fingerprints meet the FBI’s standards for inclusion…, and not all state records are submitted to the FBI.”

Again, the best source for complete records that include final dispositions remains the county courthouses where the information is recorded.

3. What About Disparate Impact?

One of the major issues with the lack of complete disposition information in the FBI records accessed through fingerprint background checks is the disproportionate effect on minorities.

NELP explains it this way:

African Americans are especially disadvantaged by the faulty records because people of color are consistently arrested at rates greater than their representation in the general population, and large numbers of those arrests never lead to conviction.

That disparate impact on minorities raises an additional concern. Guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission cautions:

...employers should not use a policy or practice that excludes people with certain criminal records if the policy or practice significantly disadvantages individuals of a particular race, national origin, or another protected characteristic, and does not accurately predict who will be a responsible, reliable, or safe employee.

4. How Fast Are Fingerprint Checks?

Fingerprints submitted for background checking are run against the records in the database. If submitted electronically, this process can take a few days. If the prints are rejected and need to be rerun or if they’re submitted on physical fingerprint cards, the process can take a few weeks or longer. If nothing is found, a written statement to that effect is sent to the organization that requested it. Of course, the background check can’t begin until the candidate goes to a fingerprinting location (either a LiveScan facility or a police station) to be fingerprinted.

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5. Are There Advantages To Fingerprint Background Checks?

Fingerprint background checks offer two advantages over source-based screening: They ensure that the record really belongs to the person whose fingerprints were submitted, and they offer an option to monitor for subsequent arrests or convictions that would allow notification of an arrest within a day.

Fingerprint checks also prevent an applicant from using someone else’s identity on an application.

Why No Background Check Is Foolproof

There is no such thing as a 100% foolproof background check. That’s because it’s impractical if not impossible (whether the check is done through the FBI or by a private company) to cover every possible record and every court jurisdiction where a person may have spent time at some point in their lives.

However, following industry best practices when performing background checks can ensure the maximum amount of coverage of a person’s criminal history.

Thorough employment screening gives employers tremendous insight into the people they’re hiring. Today, background check companies like GoodHire go straight to the source (county court records) for the most accurate and complete information possible.

As employers’ and society’s needs and expectations change, GoodHire has committed to reviewing the pros and cons of adding a fingerprint background option to its services.

Have you wondered about fingerprint background checks? Tweet us your questions at @goodhiretweets #BuildGreatTeams

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Disclaimer: The resources provided here are for educational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. We advise you to consult your own counsel if you have legal questions related to your specific practices and compliance with applicable laws.

Max Wesman

Max Wesman


Max Wesman leads all aspects of GoodHire services, from strategy to product development and design, to legal compliance, to customer support. Before joining GoodHire, he launched enterprise and small business software solutions for Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft.

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