Private eye, private detective, inquiry agent, PI -- they all do the same thing. Private investigators are “legal service providers who are specially-trained to gather information for a specific goal.” They can conduct investigations on a variety of concerns such as child custody, criminal investigations, missing person/assets, surveillance (cheating spouse), and of course, background checks for pre-employment screenings.
For background checks, a private investigator can personally look into a candidate’s financial history, driving records, educational and employment verification, criminal background and social media activity. This is usually done individually and at length, as opposed to a quick, automated scan for name matches or other identifiers. A private investigator digs deep into a candidate’s background so an employer will be more confident with comprehensive results before making a significant hire. But how does an employer know if it's necessary to hire a private investigator for a background check?
Contracting private investigators is not necessary for every hiring process, but it can be useful for specific high-profile or sensitive position candidates. Most industries do not need this level of expertise in their pre-employment screenings, but if an employer does want to hire a private investigator, they should consider cost and value for both the role and industry.
To determine whether the extra cost is worth the value, companies should weigh the impact of not having enough information about a candidate. Does hiring a PI match their fiscal and personnel needs accurately? Can a background check that scours global databases obtain the necessary information to make a hiring decision at a lower cost? Or is a bad hiring decision in a specific role too risky for a company to sustain the damage if they miss any pertinent information?
The cost of a private investigator varies, and this may depend on location, if the PI expects a retainer or contract versus hourly wages, and whether or not a company hires a firm. If the investigation uncovers certain kinds of information that require even deeper digging, this may add unexpected expenses. The national average for hiring a PI is about $105 an hour, and with this kind of investment, businesses should consider what kind of return they will receive and whether they need a PI for every role or just key roles.
Deciding when to use a PI is similar to deciding when to conduct an advanced background check, and most often it should apply to high-risk positions such as executive or managerial positions in finance, government, or positions working with vulnerable populations. A best practice is to strike the balance between high quality and fair cost for specific hiring situations. More often than not, a thorough background check will suffice, but there are some exceptions.
For example, security positions within government agencies or nanny roles with celebrity families may need a PI to ensure candidates are truly up for the job and will maintain privacy. Most small businesses, on the other hand, probably don't need to hire a private investigator, just a thorough background check.
Hiring a PI is a role-by-role, industry-by-industry decision, and in some cases it will be necessary to screen all candidates or just specific ones. Perhaps a national nonprofit or hedge fund may want to hire a PI for key roles like an executive or finance director, but a security firm may want a thorough investigation of every single employee depending on the clients they serve.
Using a private investigator can help when an employer wants to ensure everything on the candidate's record is accurate when the stakes are high for falsified credentials, criminal history, or a role with substantial power and access that could be easily abused. If an employer decides to use a private investigator, they should consider asking these questions to know if the relationship will be a good fit:
On the other hand, an employer can also discover the perfect employee match with a background check company that takes a relational approach to verification. eKnowID offers advanced checks that are reviewed by private investigators at a reasonable cost without compromising quality. This more relational approach could be enough to avoid risky hires and high costs. The results of this kind of advanced background check can also inform an employer if they do decide to take a deeper look by hiring a private investigator later.
Contracting a private investigator for hiring can offer employers in high-risk, sensitive contexts the confidence that they have made the right decision to protect their clients and company. However, generally employers should weigh whether the financial and time costs are worth it. In many cases, alternatives like advanced, individually verified background checks are enough to meet most screening needs without requiring that companies incur unnecessary costs.