What is a Background Check, and What Does it Include?

What is a background check? It’s the most fundamental tool employers use for hiring new employees. It’s a critical process that closely inspects a job applicant’s past. It can include looking for criminal records and license and education verification. That raises a more important question than just what a background check is. More critically, what do employers look for when they run a background check?

Every employer may approach the background verification process differently. Many factors can influence how a company chooses to conduct a background check. These factors may include the company’s size, industry, or the nature of the vacant jobs. There are many types of employment background checks, too. Each provides different data types from various sources.

Generally speaking, what do companies look for in a background check? A typical investigation checks for a criminal record and verifies resume information. It may include past employment, educational credentials, and professional licenses. Some specific companies may assess other types of information, such as a driving record or credit history.

Read on to learn more about what shows up on pre-employment background checks.

Understanding What’s Included in an Employment Background Check

Employers vet candidates for many reasons. For example, hiring managers can better assess risks by reviewing someone’s criminal record. Sometimes, a person’s criminal past may preclude them from working a specific job. A registered sex offender, for example, shouldn’t be allowed into a position teaching children. The level of risk is too high.

Other checks help employers gauge suitability for the job. These are often known as “verification checks.” Employers may use verification checks on employment and education history. Such credentials are essential for helping employers evaluate a candidate’s suitability. Let’s dig deeper into what information employers should gather to be thorough.

What Employers Examine During Background Checks

In this section, we’ll recap the most common types of background checks for employers to know. We’ll also examine what information appears on each of those checks. While employers typically have the right to investigate candidates, it has limitations. When conducting background checks, employers must follow the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) rules. The FCRA includes detailed steps for obtaining a subject’s permission before looking into their past.

Besides the FCRA, there may be other specific laws and regulations surrounding the information in each category. States and local jurisdictions may impose restrictions on background checks. Before using any background report, verify with an employment attorney what you can legally examine in your area.

So, what do background checks show?

Work history

Work history is a priority consideration when assessing job candidates. Employment experience offers a good sense of how qualified someone is for a role. Some jobs require candidates to have specific expertise in an industry or position. In other cases, employers have fewer requirements about work history. However, they may still consider employment history. They’ll do so to determine what skills or hands-on experience a job applicant may bring to the table.

Employment verification works differently than many other types of background checks. No database tracks where people have worked over the years. While candidates share this information on their resumes, how can you tell if it’s true? A potential employer must vet that information for inaccuracies or falsehoods. This step is critical given the frequency of resume falsehoods.

Since there is no job history database, these checks always involve contacting previous employers. At backgroundchecks.com, we contact past employers on your behalf to verify essential information. We help you confirm the accuracy of someone’s dates of employment, job title, and more.

Credit check

A few employers may consider a candidate’s credit history as part of the hiring process. These checks are prevalent in finance-related jobs like banking or stock trading. Employers do so to assess a candidate’s financial habits, and it can make sense for roles involving capital access. By evaluating how a person handles money, employers can identify potential risks. Poor credit or heavy debt loads can sometimes be a red flag against giving someone access to corporate cash. Companies want to prevent internal theft and embezzlement.

Employers should tread carefully when contacting a credit reporting agency. While financial responsibility is vital in some jobs, not everyone agrees. In recent years, questions have arisen about how much insight credit reports offer. Medical bills, unemployment, and student loans can also impact someone’s credit. These issues don’t necessarily indicate risk or a red flag. Therefore, some worry that credit checks for employment are discriminatory.

Some states agree. Using a credit report for employment in some areas is illegal. Eleven states currently restrict credit screenings for any hiring decision. These states include:

  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Maryland
  • Nevada
  • Oregon
  • Vermont
  • Washington

Additionally, some cities, including Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia, also restrict credit reports for hiring. Employers should be aware of their local laws before ordering a credit report. You must pay for these reports if you order them. There is no annual free credit report for employers.

Criminal records

Criminal records form a big part of what shows up in a pre-employment background check. These searches are the bedrock of most hiring processes. Vast numbers of employers rely on them to establish confidence in candidate selections. These records can include “red flags” such as violent offenses, sex crimes, or other convictions that could make someone too risky to hire. Employers look for this information to protect their legal interests and others. Background checks help make companies safer for their customers and other employees.

For example, consider an employer hiring for a financial accounts position. This job involves access to sensitive personal information. The employer wants to avoid hiring a candidate with a history of embezzlement or identity theft. Otherwise, the person could take advantage of their position to commit similar crimes. Employers who miss red flags could face negligent hiring lawsuits if the person commits further wrongdoing on the job.

At backgrounchecks.com, we offer many types of criminal searches to satisfy your risk management needs. Some of our products include:

  • County criminal records checks
  • State criminal record repository searches
  • Federal court searches
  • Instant searches of our proprietary database.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no single, central database for criminal information. Records about criminal charges or convictions start in county courthouses. In the case of federal crimes, filings take place at U.S. District Courts. Courts may ultimately report to state repositories. We recommend a multi-faceted approach to background checks. Consider using county checks in places where the candidate has lived recently. We also offer searches of our US OneSEARCH database. This instant report comes from over 650 million criminal records from all 50 states and all U.S. territories.

Driving record

Driving record checks occur when applying for jobs that involve operating vehicles. It’s a legal mandate from the Department of Transportation in some industries. Motor vehicle history is not relevant to all jobs, but it is critical in some. Truck drivers, heavy machinery operators, and delivery staff need a driving record check. The goal is to uncover any evidence of a history of unsafe driving. That might include habitual speeding, DUIs, or a suspended license that could indicate a safety and liability risk for employers.


Though sometimes confused with employment verification checks, reference checks serve a different purpose. This process has less to do with confirming whether resume information is accurate. Instead, professional references can speak to a candidate’s character. They may relate facts about job performance, skills, and work style. Reference checks involve contacting individuals directly to learn more about the candidate.

Verification Checks

Verification checks can do more than confirm someone’s work history or references. They can also check a person’s educational credentials and professional licenses. Education checks involve contacting a college or university to verify a candidate’s dates of attendance and graduation status.

Professional license verification ensures that a person has the correct paperwork for a job. Licenses are often state-specific. Examples include teaching-, nursing or medical licenses, and many more.

What Employers Cannot Consider

Different types of employment background checks can reveal much information about a candidate. However, employers may not access or consider specified data even when they receive that information by other means. Let’s consider a few examples.

School records

Education verifications indicate whether candidates earned the college degree they claimed on their resume. They do not show a full school record or transcript. Employers won’t know which courses the candidate took, for instance, or what grades they received. Older records, such as a high school transcript, are inaccessible. If necessary, you may request a candidate’s transcripts.

Medical records

Much of the information produced for background checks is public record. Medical records do not fall into this category when employers run a background check. These are private documents, with privacy guaranteed by numerous laws. Employers should not expect to learn about medical history through background screening. They may require candidates to undergo medical examinations to determine suitability.

Restricted criminal history data

Although a check for criminal history is at the heart of many pre-employment vetting protocols, that doesn’t mean employers have free reign to access or use all that data. The law restricts the use of some records. Sealed or expunged records, for instance, can’t bar a person from employment except in rare circumstances.

Many states also have laws restricting the use of arrest records in hiring. Others specify a criminal history lookback period of seven years. Some do both. At backgroundcheck.com, we do not report arrest records.


What types of background checks do most employers use?

Usually, they request at least a criminal background check. The specific records may vary between organizations. Some may also check your references and verify your resume information. What do jobs look for in background checks such as these? Identifying red flags and discrepancies is the goal. Employers want to be sure they can trust and rely on those they hire. That need for certainty is why most companies turn to criminal background checks.

What can disqualify a job candidate? What creates the wrong impression on a background check?

Disqualifiers vary between employers. Many factors influence what they see as problematic. Industry regulations, state and local laws, and specific companies can affect the answer. The most common disqualifiers tend to be severe felony convictions. Blatant dishonesty from the job seeker is another common preclusion.

These instances register as “red flags” almost universally. However, other factors can also disqualify candidates, depending on the job. For example, a history of dangerous driving might rule out a trucker. Bad credit and high debts could be red flags for financial-related positions. Each employer must decide what excludes candidates.

What does a background check show about employment history?

At backgroundchecks.com, we conduct employment verifications by contacting a candidate’s past employers. Employment history checks reveal dates of employment, job titles, and rehire eligibility. These checks do not usually reveal salary information or specific performance details.

What can a background check reveal? Can employers see your job history?

What is a background check? It’s a combination of multiple investigations. A screening company can check an applicant’s criminal history, driving record, past employment, education, and professional licensing.

However, there is no central database of every job you’ve ever worked. Employers only know about the jobs an applicant reports.

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Michael Klazema

About Michael Klazema The author

Michael Klazema is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based backgroundchecks.com with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments

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