Skip to main content

#3 Behind the Screens: From paper files to best practice policy leadership – the transformation of Australia’s background screening industry

Part three of our APAC #BehindTheScreens series is an interview with Summa McCosker, HireRight's Country Manager for Australia, who previously founded PeopleCheck in 2006 (which was acquired by HireRight in 2019).

September 6, 2020

Welcome to another article in the #BehindTheScreens series. Join us as we dive into the details to discuss effective background screening with the people powering the process.

Summa McCosker has been working in Australia’s background screening industry since 1998. She founded PeopleCheck in 2006, which was acquired by HireRight in 2019. Now the Australia Country Manager for HireRight, Summa shares more from her two decades of experience on how the industry has grown and how she sees it transforming in the future.

Part 1: The story behind the screens

What led you to pursue a career in this industry and create PeopleCheck?

Summa: When I graduated in 1998 with a degree in Criminology, I got a job working as a Research Assistant, providing research support to fraud investigators and also to do this thing called “background screening” for our colleagues in the UK and US. Early on in my career, this company was acquired by one of the “Big 4” accounting firms and after a few years of a joint role and managing a team of researchers, I was asked to choose between the investigative support part of my role and background screening – I chose background screening and have never looked back! Even early on in my career, I knew this industry had great potential.

After roles at a consulting firm and another background screening company, I felt there were some key things missing in the market – people that really understood the core of what background checking was about and good old-fashioned customer service. I had eight years of experience in the Australian market by then – which was a lot at that time, and I wanted to use it! I decided to start my own screening business, PeopleCheck, in 2006. The first day was daunting. I remember thinking “what now?” In the early days with the absence of a team, I would do everything myself for a screen.

But I had already grown two background checking businesses, so I knew what I had to do. We focused on offering best practice guidance to help our clients understand what they needed to consider in the background screening space. We also provided a service where the phones would be answered, where clients and candidates felt supported, receiving the answers they were looking for efficiently.

Australia team photo post-HireRight acquisition, October 2019

Part 2: Building the scene for background screening in Australia

What was background screening in Australia like when you started working in the industry? How has it evolved since then?

Summa: Background screening was almost non-existent in our market when I first started in 1998. Then we started to see changes in some core industries, such as financial services, those involving vulnerable persons, and the health sector. This was driven by the regulators for the protection of the community. New background screening companies continually popped up and the market became more competitive – for example, an industry was emerging of providers specialising in criminal history check products, rather than the full suite of services.

There has also been a change in the type of searches being undertaken. Early in my career, reference checks were the core search being undertaken – this was familiar to people; but now we see that with criminal record checks.

I remember that considerable education was needed in the market – most companies in Australia just could not see the value in screening. We’ve come a long way from Australia’s casual roots but there’s still a long way to go to make screening trusted.

Everything was also manual in the early days. We used to keep paper files in plastic sleeves with spine labels used for filing! Physical files used to roam the office from team to team and were locked away at the end of each day. Our market still has a long way to go, but some of the factors that have propelled the evolution of background screening here include:

Technology – customers are looking for quicker and more cost-effective ways to run and manage their businesses all the time, as are we, to meet the demand of a growing market.

Acceptance of background checks in Australia and Asia – sourcing verification and information is more recognised, and you now rarely need to explain what you are doing to get a verification.

Data privacy laws and globalisation – have affected how we handle personal information locally and across the globe. You no longer just need to respect your own laws, but often the intermediaries along the way.

Candidates are becoming more savvy – they are asking a lot more questions about the way their information is treated and handled.

What are the fundamentals people should know about background screening in Australia?

Summa: Australian Criminal Records checks confuse everybody! We have the Australian Federal Police and also the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission.  Although the sources are the same, the requirements, pricing and process is considerably different.

For example, a court search is NOT a police check. Lots of companies outside of Australia get this wrong by trying to cut corners. Criminal checks are readily available for employment purposes with consent, certain documentation, and ID, unlike in many APAC countries. Alternatives in Australia are risky and may not assess important information, such as spent conviction legislation.

Some searches require registration by an Australian organisation to gain access, and unlike many countries where financial services is the main or only industry regulated by compliance frameworks, ours extends to others such as health, aged care and education.

In Australia we also do not have a standard form of identification like a social security number or NRIC. So rather than ID numbers/cards, we use various pieces of candidate personal information to filter possible matches for public record searches. Most commonly, this is by name, date of birth and address.

As an emerging industry, a “she’ll be right mate” attitude is still rife among Australians with regard to background screening. This means that some organisations are worried that requesting a background check might indicate a lack of trust in the shortlisted candidate. Education and communication is integral to help combat this perception; and we also ensure that the candidate experience is positive for a smooth background screening process.

How does background screening in Australia compare to the rest of the APAC region?

Summa: In comparison to some markets in APAC, we have had an established and fairly rigorous Privacy Act since 1988 – it was significantly amended in 2014 and again in 2017, so there are certain privacy considerations that need to be built into the background checking process.

Our regulators are not always explicit on what exact checks are needed for regulated roles, nor the extent to which an organisation must go in order to achieve compliance. The onus is placed on each organisation to be comfortable with the measures taken, which underlines the importance of working with a trusted provider who can offer the right mix of checks to support the process.

In Australia, we also have some government checks that third parties cannot do for background checking purposes such as Working with Children Checks, New South Wales Driving Checks (other states are fine) and full Credit Checks. In these situations, we work with our clients to offer suitable alternatives.

We also noticed our candidates are becoming more aware of privacy and their rights. Developments last year with our Consumer Data Right amendments to the Privacy Act have seen an increase in candidates taking advantage of their rights to access the information held about them in a background checking context. Legislation and regulations are also trending towards increased scrutiny on transfer of data and associated risks.

Most importantly – I want people to know that background checking is not a scary process for candidates – we are not trying to catch people, we are simply trying to help people get their dream job, keep the community safe, and help them get through the process as quickly as possible.

Part 3: Opportunities as screening becomes best practice in Australia

What do you see as the future of background screening in Australia?

Summa: I would like to see everyone screened for all types of jobs and more regularly through the employment cycle, rather than only where it is mandated. Fraud and risk are not limited to financial services and the health sector. We need to broaden the scope to protect our businesses, customers, and the community, regardless of size or industry.

I think we will also see some strong recommendations come out of the Aged Care Royal Commission when this is finalised, leading to a tightening of background checking requirements in this sector.

International background checking is becoming more commonplace with globalisation and organisations realising that they can no longer afford to only undertake local screening when they source candidates who have work or education experience from around the globe. In the last 12 months, we have seen a shift – organisations who used to have doubts around the value of international checks now see them as an integral part of the overall process.

I also expect to see an increase in rescreening. Screening should not be defined by an employee’s start date. Opportunity and motivation can evolve during the employee lifecycle, and we should respect that the circumstances of our people change over time. We are already finding more organisations looking at best practice measures of rescreening for high-risk roles, even when this is not mandated by a regulator. Some industries require annual rescreening for some financial services roles and 3-yearly rescreens for aged care roles.

Applicant Tracking System (ATS) platforms and other integrations will continue to develop and be key in streamlining processes across all facets of the workflow to remove any duplication of information. However, while technology will be key in moving the industry forward, I believe that we are going to go full circle. Organisations will start to realise that the background checking process hinges on the people behind the system and will start to look for support from a provider that focuses on candidate, client care and the importance of being an extension of the client’s brand.

Finally, what are the three things you’re most proud of when you look at the business today?

The team – we have an amazing team of highly skilled, experienced, and knowledgeable staff that really care about the business, the clients and our candidates; and genuinely want to do the absolute best job possible. One of the most memorable experiences in my years of working was when we employed our first employee – Elaine in June 2008. Elaine is still with the business and currently heads our Account Management team.

Our loyal clients – many of our clients have been with us since the very early years of the business. With their feedback and input, they have helped us grow and evolve. We are privileged to be working with companies across a wide spectrum of industries including finance, insurance, healthcare, government departments/entities, technology, and mining.

How far we have come with little investment and only organic growth to create a very profitable business worthy of acquisition by the market leader, HireRight. Our consistent approach to customer service, flexibility and industry knowledge saw us find a niche in a competitive market.

Our leadership team comprising of strong women that have been with the business for considerable years. I am extremely proud to have watched them grow and develop throughout the evolution and challenges of the business, the economy and the market. Sorry, that was four!

australia-team-building-2020Fundraising Bake Sale for Australian Bushfires, January 2020

About Summa McCosker

Summa McCosker is HireRight’s Country Manager for Australia. In her role, she is responsible for building local service delivery, developing local product expertise and knowledge, enhancing customer relationships, and driving HireRight’s growth in Australia and New Zealand. Summa has been in the background checking industry since 1998, when the industry was in its infancy. She was the former owner and Managing Director of PeopleCheck which was established in 2006. She is responsible for growing the business to a highly successful enterprise known for its “service-first” mindset. PeopleCheck was acquired by HireRight in 2019. Read her full bio here.

To learn more about background screening in Australia, or to get answers for specific questions regarding your business needs, visit the contact us page.

More from #BehindTheScreens series

This article is part of the #BehindTheScreens series which explores the diverse nuances to consider for effective background screening in Asia Pacific. For more stories by the people powering the process, click here.

Release Date: September 6, 2020

HireRight profile image


HireRight is a leading provider of on-demand employment background checks, drug and health screening, and electronic Form I-9 and E-Verify solutions that help employers automate, manage and control background screening and related programs.