How to Search, Job Search

What’s the deal with background checks?

We’ve gotten quite a few questions from readers about background checks: what they are and how, if at all, can job seekers prepare for them. To tackle this question, Ashley Putnam—recruiter and nonprofit director—shares some advice below.

Photo credit: Mmaxer, Shutterstock

Photo credit: Mmaxer, Shutterstock

You’ve done two rounds of interviews, met several staff members, and had your resume discussed a thousand times. You feel like you’re in: the HR lady liked you, the supervisor liked you, you meet the qualifications for the job. And then it happens: an email from HR stating, “We need you to complete a background check before the next step in your interview.”

Background check? I have to do a background check?! If you’ve been on the job market in the past 5-10 years, you have most likely filled out more than one background check form. It is usually fairly straightforward: your social security number, a list of previous addresses (in the past ten years) and a signature line where you “hereby authorize the aforementioned company” to have access to intimate information about your life.

Almost all organizations use background checks and they have become a routine part of a job application. Some organizations will conduct more intense background checks than others, especially for positions where you may work with children, the elderly, at-risk populations, or individuals with special needs.

So, if you’ve ever been through this process, I’m sure you’re curious, “What happens after I fill out that form?” As a recruiter, let me give you a little insight into the infamous background check.

What does this mean?

Being asked to fill out a background check is a good sign! That means the company you’re interviewing with is thinking seriously about hiring you. Why? Because background checks cost money. That’s right. And no company wants to spend money on someone they’re only kinda maybe thinking about hiring. So take a second and pat yourself on the back. Then do the paperwork.

What can you see on my background check?

To be honest, this varies from organization to organization, and state to state. Remember, a background check costs money, so employers pay to see a certain amount of information. The more information, the more money it costs.

Here are a few things that we CAN see on your background:
• Former addresses
• Credit history
• Former employment
• Length of employment
• College and graduate degrees earned
• Criminal history over the past ten years

Here are things we CANNOT see on your background:
• Previous salary
• Reason for termination
• Employee reviews
• Grades earned
• Criminal history more than ten years old

Can you check my credit score?

Yes, credit checks are often included in background checks, although this may vary among organizations. Just like a landlord, credit is used as an indicator of responsibility, especially for positions that handle or have authority over money. This is a touchy practice even among employers and most of the time your credit score has little bearing on whether or not you get the job. Don’t worry, we all understand college loans – most of us have them as well!

What are you looking for when you read my background?

A background check is basically used to determine whether applicants are telling the truth about their pasts. The number one thing a recruiter asks when dong a background check is, “Do the facts match up?” Aside from your previous address or credit history, we are mostly concerned with your education and former employment. Did you actually graduate from college? Did you work for that company?

What are the red flags?

A background check is usually conducted by an automated service that the employer purchases. This service automatically generates a red flag when the facts don’t match up. For example: the person did not graduate from college, or the previous employer does not have a record of your employment. Red flags can also be generated by a criminal background, poor credit, or dates of employment that aren’t accurate. Many employers will give you the benefit of the doubt. If you say you worked until March and your employer says you worked until February, we probably won’t hold it against you. However, if you say you worked for three years and the employer says you worked for three months, that might be a conversation we need to have.

What should I disclose about my background?

My best advice if you are nervous about the background check: be upfront. If you have a criminal history or an issue with your previous employer, tell me before I run the background check. I have hired employees who fell a couple credits short of a college degree or had former employers that went out of business. The more information you provide your HR rep, the easier it is to pass the background check and move on to the final stages of your interview.

Yes. It is a lot of paperwork. Trust me, we don’t like doing it either. But keep in mind, you are just one step closer to getting that job!

About Ashley Putnam

Ashley has worked for 5+ years recruiting staff for domestic and international organizations aimed at finding effective solutions to poverty. She currently serves as Fellowship Director for The Work First Foundation, where she manages a program that connects recent graduates with work in urban poverty and public policy. Ashley began her work in career counseling at America Works, where she counseled low-income clients on resume writing and job search in New York. She later worked as Community Engagement Manager for Mercado Global in Guatemala, where she organized internship programs and oversaw private fundraising. Ashley graduated from Barnard College in 2006 with a B.A. in Anthropology. Read more of Ashley’s career tips and advice at or follow her on twitter @AshleyAPutnam


  1. dawn

    Hmmmm….my last position (national non-profit) ran a check and pulled up (my only!) misdemeanor from 14 years ago. They hired me anyway, because I had worked there before, but made me write an explanation. And they didn’t ask anything about criminal background on the application or in the interview. I wouldn’t have lied about it, but It’s not really something you bring up unless asked in some formal way, in my opinion.

  2. lori

    I have been job hunting since graduating in April 2013 with a Bachelor’s degree in Public Administration. I spend several hours each morning online job hunting, and have applied to more than 70 jobs, with very little positive feedback and very few interviews. My resume is stellar. I am in the middle of a chapter 13 bankruptcy. We are making monthly payments for 2 more years. Will this prevent me from getting a job? Should I offer an explanation when asked to sign a consent for a background check at an interview?

  3. Aisha

    I’ve had companies request permission to do background and credit checks during the initial application process. For me, this is a red flag and I decline to move further. I see no reason why a company would need to do a credit or background check before even making a decision to interview. If you apply for multiple jobs over several months, you can end up with dozens of inquiries on your credit – which subsequent companies can see and which can lower your credit. Unless I’m in final rounds, it’s the last condition for job acceptance, or it’s a government/ security role – I decline.

  4. Do background checks care about your emails? Do they have permission to look through?

  5. julian

    I am wondering if my old company will try to do a any type of background check on me post employment to justify letting me go for a position that has often been filled and many have left. I was just the one that didn’t quit and put my foot down to the amount of work and the manner in which it was being done. Whereas others just left. Can an old employer look into your background after you no longer are employed? If so, to what extent can they? They did a background check in the hiring process. Thanks

  6. S Hebert

    FYI: In Louisiana, criminal history is not limited to the past 7 or 10 years. Checks are handled by the State Police, and they report all of your criminal record from age 18 on. In addition, they report the charge you were arrested on NOT the final disposition of the case (what/if you were found guilty).

  7. Stayhappy

    I have a question do recruiters give the resume to background check people . That candidates give during interview. ??

  8. cindy

    I filled out job app for bi mart, it asked if i had any conviction and said that in most cases will not bar you from the job. I said yes i do ( i got a felony 8 yrs ago) they asked me a few questions and then had me go for a drug test ( i will pass). I wonder if they did the background before interview and if my background will kill my chances. Would they send me for drug test if they were concerned with my con
    viction? any one had experience with Bi Mart?

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