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Published: Jun 26, 2023 13 min read

You've already jumped through hoops to gather glowing references, write an amazing resume, and complete a full job interview, but now you find yourself at the mercy of a common final step in the hiring process: a background check. It's become standard for employers to use background check sites to investigate potential hires, uncover criminal records or even check your credit score.

But what do employers look for in a background check? It can depend on the job and location, but most employers look for the same general information. This guide reveals what employers can learn from a background check, tips for how to prepare for one and laws governing background checks that you should know about.

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What are employers searching for in a background check?

There are different types of background checks employers may conduct, depending on the role and industry. Still, most employers search for information related to a candidate's criminal history, employment verification, professional licenses and certifications, credit history, driving records and education history. Read on to learn about each category of information in more detail.

Criminal history check

Criminal record checks are a fundamental component of most background checks. Employers want to find out if a job candidate has any felony convictions, misdemeanors or sex offender status that could present a risk to the company, its employees or its customers. Some states, such as Florida, even legally require employers to run state- and national-level criminal record checks for certain positions, such as jobs that work with children or other vulnerable populations.

Employment history check

As you build your resume and fill out your job application, make sure to provide details that accurately reflect your work experience. Employers often use a background check to verify your dates of employment at past companies and make sure you aren't embellishing your experience. Hiring managers may directly contact your previous employers and look for red flags such as gaps in employment.

Professional licenses and certifications

If you're applying for a job that requires specialized training or certification, a background check will verify the legitimacy of your license. This is especially true for roles that involve handling sensitive materials, such as healthcare or finance.

Credit history check

Employers in certain industries may use a credit history check to verify your financial stability and trustworthiness. These types of background checks are most common for finance-related roles, such as banking, accounting or stock trading.

However, using a candidate's credit history to make hiring decisions is prohibited in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawai'i, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington, as well as heavily regulated in many other states, so this type of background check is less common overall.

Driving record check

For positions that require you to use a company vehicle or drive on behalf of your employer (e.g. delivery drivers, couriers or heavy machine operators), you may undergo a driving record check. A driving record check reveals any traffic violations, DUIs or other driving-related issues that could impact safety and liability for the company.

Education history check

Another common use of background checks is to review your education history. This typically includes verifying that you actually attended any educational institutions you claim, as well as confirming the degree or certification you earned. Most universities and educational institutions provide online degree verification services for employers to use.

How can I prepare for my background check?

Preparing for a background check may sound stressful, but there are ways to make sure the process goes smoothly. If you've experienced background check problems in the past, you may expect the worst, but taking proactive steps and directly addressing any issues will increase an employers' confidence in your candidacy.

Gather information

Gather any information and documents related to the background check, including past employment records, educational transcripts or professional license certificates. Think of this step as running a background check on yourself so you know what to expect. It can also reveal potential issues the background check may uncover.

When you receive the results of your official background check, make sure all the information is accurate and up-to-date. If you find inaccuracies, contact the relevant organization (e.g. your former employer or university) as soon as possible to correct the information.

Review your credit report

If a credit check is part of your background screening process, review your credit report ahead of time to uncover any potential issues. You can get a free copy of your credit report from any of the three major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — once a year. Reviewing your credit report will give you a chance to dispute inaccuracies ahead of time. Start by reading our guide on how to check your credit report.

Review your criminal record

It's a good idea to review your criminal record before a new background check to make sure there are no surprises or inaccuracies. Some states let you access your criminal record online through your local law enforcement agency. You can also use a third-party background check service. Criminal record check services conveniently and quickly search for criminal records across local, state and federal databases.

Contact references

Employment history checks verify the accuracy of your employment information, while reference checks provide insight into your work ethic, character and job performance. Before the background check process begins, contact your references to make sure they're still available and willing to provide a positive recommendation. Make sure they feel prepared, understand what questions will come their way and can give an accurate account of your work experience.

Be honest

Above all else, be honest with your potential employer throughout the background check process. This includes providing accurate information on your application, not omitting any facts and directly addressing any issues that arise from the background check. Many employers understand that past mistakes are part of life. Being open about your past often comes across more favorably than trying to hide or ignore it.

Stay organized

Finally, keep track of the information you need to submit for the check, be mindful of deadlines and keep a log of communication with your potential employer. This organized approach will help you follow all the necessary steps, display dedication to the job and establish your professionalism.

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What is the importance of background checks in the hiring process?

If you're an employer, using the best job posting sites and recruiting tactics are crucial components of a successful hiring process. However, it's just as important to confirm that your applicants are who they say they are. As a result, background checks are a central component of many companies' employment processes.

Background checks provide a more comprehensive look at a candidate's professional and personal history, beyond what an employer can learn from job applications and interviews. This helps the employer make an informed decision when selecting the best candidate while avoiding risks associated with hiring someone who turns out to be unqualified or unsuitable. In some cases, the employer may ask a candidate to take a drug test along with their background check to verify their health and fitness for the role.

Laws you should know about your background check

Background checks can reveal sensitive personal information, so there are laws and regulations in place to protect the privacy of job applicants and limit the information employers can access. Below are some of the most important laws to be aware of when it comes to background checks.

Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA)

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) is a federal law, which sets the standards for businesses that use consumer data and reports in their hiring processes. The FCRA lays out guidelines for the types of information employers are allowed to access, how they can access it and how the applicant is notified about the results.

One of the FCRA's most important requirements is that a company must obtain permission from an applicant before running a credit or background check. Before an employer can request information about you from a third-party source, you must sign an FCRA authorization form.

The form should include a description of the information requested, the purpose for which it will be used and a summary of your rights under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. You must sign this form (either electronically or in writing), and the employer should provide you with a copy for your records.

The FCRA also stipulates that civil suits, judgments, paid tax liens and arrests older than seven years that did not result in a conviction cannot be used against you in the hiring process. Employers are not allowed to consider bankruptcies that are older than ten years, either.

Lastly, the FCRA requires written notification for applicants who are denied employment due to the results of a background check. Known as a "notice of adverse action," this document must include the name and contact details of the consumer reporting agency that supplied the report.

“Ban the box” laws

"Ban the box" laws are state-level regulations that prohibit employers from asking about a job applicant's criminal history on a job application. Their name comes from the fact that they make it illegal for job applications to include a check box indicating past criminal convictions.

Some “ban the box” laws even forbid employers from asking about criminal history until after an offer of employment. These laws are meant to give job applicants with criminal records a greater chance of finding employment by removing the stigma associated with convictions. 15 states and the District of Columbia currently have ban the box laws in place, while dozens of cities and counties have their own regulations.

State-specific laws

Many states have their own laws and regulations pertaining to background checks, including restricting what types of information employers can access and when they are allowed to do so. State laws related to background checks vary, so familiarize yourself with the regulations in your state.

Privacy laws

In addition to the FCRA and “ban the box” laws, there is some information that most employers are never allowed to access. This includes medical records, genetic information, military records and some in-depth school records. It's also illegal for employers to ask about your religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation during the job application process.

Data security laws

When conducting background checks, employers uncover personal and sensitive data that needs to be stored securely. To this end, employers must comply with state and federal data security laws that dictate how consumer data is stored, shared and used. This includes implementing safeguards such as secure databases and encryption software to ensure the safety of personal information.

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What do employers look for in a background check FAQ

Can an employer conduct a background check without my consent?

No, employers are not legally allowed to conduct a background check without your written consent.

Will a background check show expunged or sealed records?

No, expunged and sealed records, such as juvenile records, will not appear on a background check.

Can an employer deny me a job based on information found in a background check?

Yes, employers are allowed to deny you a job based on information found in your background check. However, the FCRA requires them to notify you in writing and provide the name and contact information of the credit check service they used.

Can I dispute inaccurate information on a background check?

Yes. According to the FCRA, you have the right to file a dispute with the consumer reporting agency that provided your background check. If you need to dispute a criminal conviction, you'll need to file a challenge to your criminal record with your state's Bureau of Identification.
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