Employment Background Check - What to Expect

In an employment background check, a prospective employer reviews a candidate’s employment history, commercial and criminal records, financial records and even personal information that may be in the public domain (thanks to social media).

To what extend your employer checks your background is really based on your employer and the type of job you are applying for. Most employers will run a social security check and maybe a credit check. You can prepare for a credit check by getting a free copy of your credit report from one of the credit bureaus like Transunion. If you will be operating machinery you can also expect to be drug tested, and if you’ll be working in the financial domain, you can even be fingerprinted.

Employers also use pre-employment assessments and other tools to screen candidates. This guide explains everything you need to know about background checks, and how to prepare for them. We have summarized the key steps below to save you some time.

Quick Guide to Prepare For a Background Check

The key to preparing for a background check is to get ahead of any issues. Understand the information your prospective employer is checking for and make sure there are no errors. Errors in background check data do occur, and you want to be able to address them quickly.

Get a copy of your credit report. Unfortunately, companies use the credit report to assess your trustworthiness at times. Look for any big red flags like non-payments, or anything that shouldn’t be there. If you have negative marks, sign up for ongoing monitoring - this can show an employer you are taking steps to fix any issues.

Here are the best free credit check options

Check your social media. Remove anything your mother wouldn’t approve of - enough said.

Prepare good work references and prepare your work history. Ask your previous employers for your work records. When you provide references, check in with those references and make sure they will have good things to say about you.

Check your driving record. Request a copy of your driving record from your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles, or view it online at the DMV website.

Check your state’s criminal record statutes. Some states limit criminal background checks to a certain number of years in the past, while other states only allow checks for certain jobs.

Get ready for a drug test. If you partake in certain substances that employers screen for, you should understand how long those substances stay in your system and are detectable by drug tests. Please seek help from a professional or substance abuse agencies that can help.

How Employers Conduct Background Checks

There is a spectrum when it comes to background checks. Depending on your role, employment level and job function, an employment screen could be as simple as a social security check and a google search. For sensitive jobs a full criminal and financial background test may be warranted.

Many employers use background check services to check an employee’s background information. To limit the types and amounts of information employers can request, these companies are only allowed to check certain information, and these rules are governed by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) of 1970.

A background check under the FCRA is defined as a consumer report, and an employer must notify you in writing and obtain your written authorization before conducting a background check.

The big caveat is that if an employer is not using a 3rd party background check service to do the checking, they do not need your consent. This applies to checking your facebook posts, calling your former employer or asking around town about you.

What is in a Background Check?

The information requested in a background check can vary. Information that an employer could check may include (non-exhaustive list):

  • work history
  • credit report history
  • driving records
  • criminal records
  • Social media
  • vehicle registration
  • court records
  • compensation
  • bankruptcies
  • medical records
  • work references
  • character references
  • property ownership
  • drug test results
  • military records
  • sex offender status

Most of the time, the information requested applies to the job. For example, if you will be driving, it is reasonable to check your driving record, credit and drug test results. Sometimes companies do over-reach, and this can be a sign that you may not want to work for that company.

What Can not be Included in a Background Check?

There are limitations on information that can be disclosed in a background check. These limitations are designed to protect employees rights to work. Here is what can not be requested in a background check under any circumstance:

  • bankruptcies after 10 years
  • civil suits and civil judgments after 7 years
  • records of arrest after 7 years
  • paid tax liens after 7 years
  • accounts placed for collection after 7 years

A caveat to this list, is that these restrictions do not apply if the position you are being hired for pays a salary of $75,000 or more.

Other types of records require your explicit consent to be released. This type of information is highly confidential and can only be released under certain circumstances.

Examples include:

  • academic records
  • Medical records
  • military service records, however, the military can disclose your name, rank, salary, assignments, and awards without your consent.

Laws, which vary from state to state, regarding background checks can make for a complicated landscape. For example, some states don't allow questions about arrests or convictions beyond a certain point in the past. Other states only allow consideration of criminal history for some, but not all positions.

Medical records, by and large, are treated as confidential by almost every state. Employers are barred from making hiring decisions based on an applicant's disability or illness. States only permit employers to inquire about your ability to perform the functions of the job you are applying for.

The public domain also affects what types of information can be obtained by an employer. We already touched on social media where your age, race and other information may be out there for anyone to see. Additionally, you cannot be discriminated against due to bankruptcy, but bankruptcies are a public record, so are property records and other records.

The bottom line is that a vast amount of information about you is out there, and employers are using this information to make hiring decisions. It pays to know what information is available so you are not caught flat footed.

Your Rights Under the FCRA

So far we’ve discussed how background checks work, what information can be obtained, and what you can do to be prepared. This section gives a high level summary of your rights during a background check. Make sure you understand these rights, and take the steps necessary.

Written notice, written consent. If the employer is requesting a consumer file, they must give you written notice and you must give them written consent before they can move forward with a 3rd party background check company.

Pre-adverse action disclosure. This notice needs to be given if an employer decides not to hire you, or rescind a job offer, because of information in your consumer report. The disclosure should include a copy of the consumer report and an explanation of your rights.

You must be told that information in your file was used against you. You must be told that information in your file was used adversely against you, and you should also be provided the contact information for the employment screening company they used.

You have a right to know what is in your file. You may request all of the information about you that was gathered by a consumer reporting agency.

Right to ask for a credit report. You may request credit reports from all three credit bureaus: Experian Equifax Transunion

Right to dispute and correct inaccurate information. If you report errors in your information, the consumer reporting agency must investigate, and correct the information unless your report is frivolous.

You may obtain a security ‘freeze’ on your credit report. You can prevent a credit reporting agency from releasing information about you unless you give your expressed written consent. This prevents loans and other financial products from being taken out in your name.

You may seek damages from violators. You can sue in federal court if a consumer reporting agency or a user of information furnished by a consumer reporting agency violates the FCRA.

How to Survive a Background Check

As we can see, background checks can be complicated and extensive. The best way to be prepared is to understand what information is being requested, and make sure there aren’t any errors or red flags that you are not prepared to answer.

If you don’t have any questions about your criminal history, start with getting a free credit report, and cleaning up your social profiles. Then make sure you prospective employer is giving you all the proper FCRA notices, and that your rights are not being violated.