When Background Checks Cause PR Problems

Just as companies such as Uber and Lyft disrupted the transportation industry, the growth of the short-term rental market through AirBNB changed how many people travel. With more options and flexibility compared to traditional hotel stays, millions of travelers every year opt to use independently operated AirBNB accommodation. Naturally, the company wants to foster a safe environment to protect travelers and those who host them.

As part of its safety policies, AirBNB may use a third-party background check service to ensure they don’t facilitate potentially dangerous or illegal bookings. While this is a smart form of due diligence and an essential step for businesses in many situations, the company's tools and policies used to check criminal records have recently come under fire. A simple background check quickly snowballed into a sprawling PR headache for the company. What happened?

A Pittsburgh-area councilwoman, who had previously used AirBNB without issue, made an early September booking to travel to see a football game. Without warning, the woman received a notice from AirBNB that her account had been banned and her reservation canceled. The woman had no new convictions, but for reasons unknown, AirBNB's internal systems flagged her record of prior DUI and drug possession convictions. 

Taking to social media to seek an explanation, the woman's story quickly went viral on Twitter. Outrage poured in; tens of millions of Americans live with criminal records, often for minor and non-violent charges. The incident was seen as another example of the unfair barriers faced even by those who've completed their sentences. Within just 24 hours, AirBNB reversed the ban and restored the woman's account. 

However, the story did not end there. The councilwoman took her story to the mainstream media, using the opportunity to advocate for AirBNB to change its policies and explain its actions more clearly. Through a spokesman, for example, the company noted that the ban was not permanent—but AirBNB users have no way of knowing how long those bans will last. The company also settled a class-action lawsuit alleging irregularities in its background check procedures.

Going from a single failed background check to facing a fresh wave of scrutiny is likely not the kind of journey AirBNB expected to enable. What can this story teach the average business owner contemplating their own background screening procedures? Accuracy, and especially consistency, are key. You may not often think of an applicant failing a background check as a potential problem for your business, but in the right circumstances, it certainly can be. 

A well-defined policy that you apply evenly across the board to all individuals is essential for maintaining fairness and avoiding the pitfalls of potential discrimination. Understanding how to interpret criminal background check results is also vital. Ensuring a match between the subject of the search and the records you find could help you avoid everything from a PR nightmare to a potential lawsuit. 

Michael Klazema

About Michael Klazema The author

Michael Klazema is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based backgroundchecks.com with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments

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