What Do Employers Look For In A Background Check

By Chris Kolmar - Dec. 28, 2020

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Many professionals pass difficult job interviews, only for employers to ultimately reject their applications due to what was found during a background check.

With all the time and effort you put into every other aspect of the job-search process, it’s also prudent to learn what a background check entails.

This article will discuss what a background check is and what information employers can and cannot delve into. You’ll also learn what steps you can take to prepare for the process.

What Is an Employee Background Check?

Background checks are a standard way for employers to learn detailed information about a candidate before extending them a formal job offer.

Hiring managers can learn a bit about an applicant’s background through their resume and what they divulge during interviews.

However, there’s plenty of missing information that is useful or downright necessary to know before deciding whether a candidate is the right fit.

Hiring, onboarding, and training a new employee can be a costly process. Even with at-will employment, firing a worker can disrupt a business’ operations.

For these reasons, background checks are a useful preliminary tool to identify a potential employee’s red flags before it’s too late.

The Employee Background Check Process

When conducting a background check on a candidate, employers may choose from two different methods.

These methods are:

  • Use a third-party service. Specialized companies such as iprospectcheck can run an employee background screening on behalf of an employer.

    Both the employer and the third-party company must follow the background check rules dictated by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).

    To ensure compliance, employers must:

    1. Give notice to the candidate that they will be completing a background check.

    2. Obtain the candidate’s consent to perform the background check.

    3. Provide the candidate with a copy of the “Summary of Consumer Rights under the FCRA.”

    4. Provide the candidate with the name, phone number, and physical address of the agency producing the background check report.

    Additionally, employers must follow the Adverse Action Notification Process (AANP) if they decide to reject a candidate as a result of what was found during their background check.

    This includes sending them a document that explains exactly what information was found that denied them the job, as well as informing them of where they can receive a copy of the report.

    Employers should also include a copy of the most current document titled, “Summary of Your Rights Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act.”

  • Do it themselves. Companies may be able to find the information they’re looking for by searching through online databases, public records, and by calling previous employers.

    However, there are mountains of laws that employers could unwittingly break by conducting a pre-employment check on their own.

    It’s illegal to deny applicants a job or even perform a background check based on factors such as race, gender, or disability.

    They also should not be asking you any personal questions during the job interview or over the phone.

    Asking a candidate about their medical or financial history can put companies in serious legal trouble, even if it’s information they’ve shared publicly on social media or through other means.

Most reputable employment-screening companies will be able to complete the check within 3-5 days.

This time can range between a few minutes to multiple weeks, depending on factors such as the location of the candidate and county courthouse operations.

What Employers Can Check During a Background Screening

Some common pieces of information that employers are legally able to look into are:

  • Employment verification. Applicants who lie about their job history are often immediately disqualified.

    A prospective employer may call into your previous jobs to ask about your dates of employment, essential duties, and performance.

    However, they’re very unlikely to try and confirm every bullet point in your resume.

    Employers just want to know that you really worked there and were roughly as useful as you’ve claimed throughout the application process.

  • Education. Most universities have online tools that will allow employers to check if your diploma is real, as well as if your major and years of study match the education section on your resume.

  • Criminal records. The importance of a candidate’s past criminal activity differs from employer to employer.

    It could be crucial to know for some careers, such as in childcare.

    Whatever the truth is, employers will inevitably learn about it during the background check. For this reason, it’s best to just be forthright with any criminal history you may have.

  • Work eligibility. Employers are legally allowed to ask you to present documents proving your identity and authorization to work in the United States.

  • Credit checks. If an applicant is applying for a financial position and shows a long string of bankruptcies, then they may not be the right individual for the position.

  • Motor vehicle records. If you’re applying to be a truck or taxi driver, an employer will likely want to check if you’ve caused any accidents in the past.

  • Social media activity. There is a complex web of laws that dictate how social media activity can influence an employer’s decision to decline a candidate for a job.

    However, just know that many professionals have lost their jobs due to foul language, hate speech, and other negative material on their social media profiles.

  • Drug or alcohol test. Although this test is technically separate from the background check, it is something that employers may ask you to do.

    These tests are common if your job involves heavy machinery, driving, or highly technical tasks.

What Employers Can’t Check During a Background Screening

When a company conducts a background check on you, they aren’t allowed to ask, learn, or decline you a job offer based on:

  • Political affiliation. If possible, you should document the incident if your employer even mentions that they know your political views.

    Unless, of course, you’re personal friends with them and discussed it outside of work.

  • Worker compensation. Companies aren’t allowed to learn about your previous salary until after they extend you a job offer.

    Even after you’re hired, you should treat it as a red flag if your employer asks about your previous compensation.

  • Disabilities. Just as is the case with political affiliation, employers who are even aware of any physical disabilities that you haven’t willingly disclosed to them are in violation of multiple state and federal employment laws.

    The only way they could indirectly glean this information is by asking you to perform a physical exam.

    Even then, they’re only allowed to measure if you’re physically able to perform the job’s essential duties, not whether you possess a disability.

  • Various credit/criminal information. Yes, we did mention credit and criminal checks as something that many employers perform during a background screening.

    However, there are many pieces of information that they may not be able to learn, depending on the location of the job.

    You should look into your state-specific laws if you’re interested, but details that employers generally can’t look into include:

    1. Bankruptcies over ten years in the past.

    2. Civil suits and arrest records after seven years from date of entry.

    3. Accounts placed for collection after seven years.

    4. Most other negative information (excluding criminal convictions) after seven years.

How to Prepare For a Background Check

It’s a misconception that you can’t prepare for a background check. There are plenty of steps you can take to improve your chances of passing a pre-employment screening.

The most important ones are to:

  1. Review your records. Make sure to obtain copies of your credit report and driving records.

    This way, you can dispute any incorrect information ahead of time or prepare explanations for details that your employer is likely to ask about, such as major traffic violations.

    You can obtain a free record of your credit report through major credit bureaus such as Equifax and Experian.

    In some states, you may be able to view your driving records online through the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) website.

  2. Curate your social media profiles or set them to private. Employers may look up your social media profiles to spot any possible red flags.

    Either delete posts with excessive foul language and questionable pictures or change their privacy settings so that outsiders can’t view them.

  3. Prepare records of your previous jobs and academic history. If a company asks to see your college diploma or proof of past employment, you want to be able to hand it over quickly.

    The longer you wait, the more suspicious they may become of you doctoring documents.

  4. Inform your references ahead of time. If you’ve given a prospective employer your references’ contact information, you should let them know they might be called.

    If they’re surprised and called out of the blue, they might not have time to recollect experiences that they’ve had with you.

    You also need to make sure you have their consent to be a reference in the first place. It would be disastrous for an employer to call a past employer who doesn’t have anything positive to say about you.

  5. Be honest. In almost all cases, being honest throughout the application process will save you time and lead to the best results.

    There’s no point in hiding your criminal history, as employers will doubtlessly look into it after your interview.

    You also don’t want to spend years building a career, only for it to come crashing down when your fraudulent qualifications or employment history are discovered.

    If an employer turns you down because of your honesty, you can simply move on to the next job listing.

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Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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