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!


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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 www.savetheworld-careers.tumblr.com or follow her on twitter @AshleyAPutnam
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    • dawn
    • August 8, 2013

    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.

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    • lori
    • August 20, 2013

    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?

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    • Aisha
    • January 10, 2014

    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.

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

    • julian
    • February 28, 2014

    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

    • S Hebert
    • March 25, 2014

    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).

    • Stayhappy
    • March 29, 2014

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

    • cindy
    • April 12, 2014

    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?

    • rajuram
    • April 24, 2014

    Am facing a big problem. I was removed from my previous employment due to performance issue. as they terminated me they gave me salary for 2 months or till i get new job, whichever is earliest. i got job immediately but didn’t inform my previous company and took the salary which they gave me. now i got another very good offer. the problem is my termination is on month 3 and my new employment is n month 1. now that there is a clash of 2 months overlap am afraid what that will lead to in hr background verification. pls help at the earliest possible. advice me what to do. thanks in advance

  4. I think I might be getting a bad refference from my former employer and I dont know why they fired me and I still dont know why because to me I did nothing wrong I mean I worked there 6yrs and the manager said I wasnt doing my job right I mean after 6yrs of work now im no good I asked him I was doing ok for the first 5yrs and now im not doing a good job he couldnt give me an anser im still confused and I cant seem to find another job I think because of him I think he is giving me a bad refference

    • denis
    • May 22, 2014

    The truth behind background checks is that most munipalities today are arresting more people for the sake of revenue collection. Also the federal government is paying more munipalities to arrest people so that the FBI and NSA etc. can collect more information on people -so they arrest people for the even smallest thing– where before they would just tell you move along— all for revenue enhancement and and information collection

    The other interesting thing about background checks is that they only look at the bad side of a person. If you volunteer for a soup kitchen or turn in a wallet with cash or any other good sameritan act –that does not get writtin down anywhere giving the prospective employer an incomplete picture of the prospective employee

    The other evil about a background checks is that even if they do hire a person it sets up a feeling of distrust and suspicion between the employee and employer –not a good way of starting off on a good job relationship. The employer is usually to ashamed of telling the employee what was found in the background check knowing that what they did was evil and wrong —plus there is no confidentality about what was found –thus the HR people can blab whatever they want

    What is even more interesting abount background checks is that they are usually conducted be a woman. While a woman has the right to abort a child in an unwanted pregnancy with the Right of Privacy(Roe v Wade) she’s sitting there at a computer invading someone’s privacy, with delight I must add –I cannot think of anything more evil and hypocritical as this!

    The other thing about background checks is that there is no evidence to show that a person with a criminal background is going to commit any crime on the job. The truth is that the most heinous criminal acts such as mass killings were committed by people with no criminal background– it’s just that it is fun and titillating for office people to sit there at a computer looking into peoples foiables and misteps –Of course we do not get to see their background –

    1. I agree with most everything you said. Our culture was not prepared to handle the massive ability to acquire data and that came with the internet. Suddenly, we were overwhelmed with all this data. We could now capture more crime ( internet phones, databases following our “personal” habits). A lot of people doing not too much of anything were now “criminals”. The correctional system is an industry. Police need to justify their salaries like anyone else. I have become an expert on this since getting a possession charge as a physician assistant, of course on my “off time”. I have never harmed a patient, and in fact have been featured in the news/media for saving lives. Petty crimes, especially drug related “crimes” have ruined many careers. There is not much looking at the entire contribution a person makes to the workforce. It had gotten ridiculous. I read a recent statistic that 25% of our current unemployment is due to this issue of not being able to “pass” a background check, despite the guidelines. After experiencing the ruination of my career, when my personal business was captured on a database, then cross-matched with another database ( those of us who possess a medical license) became unemployment. Given , our healthcare crisis can we really throw away healthcare providers on one invalid indicator. Economically, there is a huge toll to the person and the economy which needs our tax revenue in the economy ( I was paying 60,000 a year in state and federal tax dollars). I had no idea that this even was a concept. That the states run around checking cross-checking databases and when they discover a statistic, you can be minding your own business and wham. This truly happens. I met hundreds of fellow doctors( some famous for their heroics and bravery), dentists, vets even….that can’t even go on a humanitarian effort because of a stain on their background. I think even the state, regrets opening this can of worms, because people are people. It’s going to become real difficult to find a sufficient number of “perfect people” to make the world go round. I have a medical degree and charming personality and actually got turned down jobs to sell cable television packages. I obviously have thought quite a bit about this topic and it infuriates me.

  5. I was laid off from a finance firm the end of Dec 2013. I was given a 6 month severance and wanted to regroup with family before taking on my next role. I currently have on my resume XYZ Company Nov 2009- to current because I technically am being paid. Is that ok? I met with a headhunter and they asked me if I was still at my firm. I said yes because being perceived as employed is a lot more attractive then “taking time off”. I feel guilty and I don’t like the thought of lying however I don’t want to be perceived as being lazy. I have worked for 16 years straight and time off is something I really needed. I am open to advice and I know that you’ll say to come clean which I am ok with doing. I guess hearing it from someone may be all I need either way. Thank you.

    • Gigi
    • June 10, 2014

    I completely understand your moral dilemma. In this brutal economy, a six month gap in employment could cause the automatic/computerized screening of resumes to reject you without an actual person even looking at your resume. However, employers are the most curious about your last position usually and may call and verify employment dates as part of the background check. I have left off jobs that I worked for a few months because they were not in my career field, but needed for money. I was never asked about those jobs that I didn’t list on my resume.

    One possible recommendation is to say that you were laid off, were a excellent employee that got a severance and that you needed to take care of some personal family matters such as an ailing family member, to move, etc. It is so sad that you can’t be honest and admit that you just needed some to off and to regroup. I wish you the best.

      • Clairr
      • July 18, 2014

      On a background check, besides the length and place of the company, are you able to find out about their job titles there too?

    • James
    • October 2, 2014

    I am just curious to know how long can a background check can take?

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