20 years of background screening

South Africa presents an interesting and unique case study when it comes to the background screening industry.


29 July 2014


The birth of the New South Africa in 1994 meant a dramatic shift in the socio-economic landscape of the country with a huge influx of prospective employees into a wide-open and hotly contested job market. This shift, and the last 20 years of policy and regulation changes, categorically affected the way businesses could vet prospective employees.

Ina Van der Merwe, founder of South Africa’s first private sector background screening company, Managed Integrity Evaluation (MIE), says the process of change in South Africa deeply affected her business. “Background screening and vetting is something that is woven into the fabric of society. When the norms change, so does the way we do business. But with increasing levels of fraud and corruption in the private sector, government and state-owned enterprises (SOE) background screening is always in high demand.”

Over the last 20 years numerous legislation changes have come into effect. While these are generally aimed at protecting the man on the street, they have a knock-on effect on the way businesses conduct the verification of potential employees.

With the advent of democracy came a fundamental focus on the protection of the workforce. This saw the introduction of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act was in 1997.

“Almost overnight organisations became very anxious about vetting employees for fear of infringing on workforce rights,” says Van der Merwe. “This created a high degree of uncertainty in background screening, to the point where people were not sure if they could even put their ID numbers on their CVs. This resulted in a decisive dip in the demand for background screening in 1997.”

Increasing levels of corruption and fraud, as well as affirmative action, soon brought the demand for the service back. When considering a prospective employee, and in mitigating potential risk, companies simply had to know: Is this person qualified; is the qualification real; how does his or her credit history look; and has he or she been involved in any criminal activity?

With the establishment of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) in 1996 there was an even more serious need for appropriate background screening as employers could no longer dismiss staff as easily as before, even if it was justified. More than ever, employers needed to hire the right people up-front.

In 2007 the establishment of the National Credit Act meant that companies could no longer share credit information as freely as they once could. Consent was required from the consumer before they could dig up credit-related information. This move, while good for the consumer, had massive repercussions in the recruitment and background screening environment and once again forced businesses to re-evaluate their modus operandi.

“When laws change, the way business operates has to change as well,” says Van der Merwe. “When it comes to background screening, awareness and education is part of the service we offer. We constantly have to stay on top of the judicial and regulatory trends and make sure our clients remain up to speed. By doing this, they are never in breach of the law and simultaneously mitigate as much risk as they can.”

Van der Merwe maintains the greatest change in background screening was the implementation of the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) in 2009. This was a move by the South African Police Service (SAPS), which then required electronic fingerprint scans in order to verify a citizen’s criminal record. No longer could companies verify a person’s criminal record with a name and ID number, they had to have their fingerprints. “This move meant that we trained 8,113 individuals to become certified biometrics officers in the proper method of scanning fingerprints as well as the technology they needed to do it,” says Van der Merwe.

Another critical player in the advancement of background screening is the evolution of technology. In this information age, there is no longer reliance on post, faxes and telephones. Everything has gone digital. As information is the ‘I’ in ‘IT’, the background screening industry was significantly strengthened with the arrival of inter-connected databases, whereby credit bureaus, Afiswitch and others could all be linked into one seamless digital system.

“Back when I started in 1988, all I had were a few file cabinets and my fax machine. That was my database,” says Van der Merwe. “Now we have massive digital information banks, which we can integrate with others to make super catalogues of information. The huge volumes of screenings we had to conduct created an immense need for these systems, servers and integration.”

The most drastic and largest system change Van der Merwe had to manage was the implementation of the National Qualifications Register (NQR™) in 2000 – South Africa’s first commercial aggregated qualifications register, which is owned and operated by MIE. “The NQR™ system has upwards of 3.5 million student qualification entries and is the country’s premier means of qualification verification. The volumes we needed to process through this system demanded the most hi-tech databank we had ever created. The beauty of technology is that it helped us become faster and more accurate than ever before, and now the NQR™ is our most popular offering,” says Van der Merwe.

Moving forward, with new Acts like the Protection of Personal Information (POPI), Credit Amnesty as well as increased levels of fraud and corruption, Van der Merwe believes that the background screening industry is bound to change. Consent and the right to privacy will continue to take centre stage and securing data to prevent hacking and identity theft will always be a top priority as cybercrimes become increasingly prevalent.

While the rights of citizens are being protected, the private sector, government and state-owned enterprises will always need to vet their employees. Risk is a reality most organisations cannot afford to ignore.

“In these risky economic times, and with so much going on, businesses need to know exactly who they are employing or doing business with. As long as there is risk, background screening will always be in demand,” concludes Van der Merwe.

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