Interpreting Background Checks for Employment

Using background checks for employment is a standard practice in many industries, but the process is more than simply ordering and reviewing a report. Background checks may relate expansive criminal history information in formats that the average person can’t always understand.

Interpreting background check results appropriately is vital for making smart hiring decisions and complying with employment law. In our newest white paper, learn more about what you need to know, from communicating with applicants to understanding criminal record data.

An Employer’s Guide to Interpreting Background Checks for Employment

You’ve ordered a background check—now what? It’s advisable to screen job applicants before hiring someone, but it can also prove more complex than initially seems. There are legal considerations involved, the potential for encountering unfamiliar jargon, and the need to determine what your business can and cannot accept in a person’s past. Background checks for employment are powerful tools once you learn how to use them correctly. Interpreting the results is a fundamental step on the road to that understanding.

Employers cannot reduce the process to a simple “yes” or “no” outcome. According to the federal government, declining to hire individuals solely because they have a criminal record is discriminatory. Categorically denying such applicants could land your company in hot water with potentially large fines. Therefore, you must prepare to engage in more interpretation rather than seeking to hire only individuals without records.

What does a report show, and what does it all mean? Even though a background check may seem a relatively straightforward product, there is nuance involved. For example, states may report the same crime differently. Some reports may contain information that others do not. Combined with a thorough process for obtaining all the necessary information on your candidate, you will need a well-defined workflow for reading, interpreting, and making decisions based on background checks.

In this white paper, we break down all the essential elements of background checks and what employers need to know. We’ll examine legal compliance concerns since the law should always guide your practices. From there, we’ll explore what you might see on a background report, how to prepare for decision making, and communicating the results. You can confidently expand your teams with a clear understanding of what the reports contain. 

Always Ensure You’ve Followed the Law Before Ordering a Report

Before you may order and consider the results of a background check, you should make a few legal considerations. Is your business ready to request background checks in full compliance with the law? For example, have you provided your candidate with a standalone disclosure of your intent to use their report for employment purposes? This requirement falls under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, and violations could prove costly.

Similarly, you should be sure to comply with any local or state laws that “ban the box” or have “Fair Chance” provisions. You can’t order a background check in some areas without conducting an interview or providing a conditional job offer. Always ensure you’ve taken the appropriate steps to request a report legally.

Have Your Adverse Action Workflow Ready to Go

Ensuring your compliance with the FCRA goes beyond creating the appropriate standalone disclosure. If you decide against hiring someone because of how you interpret their background check, the law requires you to follow the “adverse action” workflow. This step is vital, and your business should have a plan for enacting it when necessary.

The law requires a pre-adverse action notice informing candidates you will regret their application. You must provide a copy of the background report and allow the individual time to provide any clarifying or correcting information. Only then can you issue the final adverse action notice and move on to other candidates. Always have this process in place before you read background checks.

What Shows Up in a Pre-Employment Background Check?

Interpreting background check results begins with understanding the differences between various types of background checks and what may appear on them. Reporting product formats may differ from state to state. Some states exclude information that others include. This process sometimes requires exploring local laws to better understand what you may expect. However, we can discuss the process from a more general perspective.

The types of background checks you might request

The level of detail and the types of crimes you can uncover partly depend on what background check you order. Because of these differences, employers may use one or more reports based on their specific needs. In general, you should know how to interpret the following results:

  • County court record searches, which typically report local misdemeanors and some felonies.
  • State-level searches usually consult databases maintained by the state’s police or justice system. These databases centralize records from counties but only update periodically.
  • A national or multi-jurisdictional background check that uses privately compiled and maintained databases from state and county-level sources, such as the US OneSEARCH.
  • Federal background checks, which only report crimes prosecuted in federal court.
  • MVR checks, which report traffic violations and other incidents.

The types of information presented in background reports

What data should you expect to encounter on a background check? This stage is where reading and interpreting background checks becomes important. What you uncover at this stage could trigger your adverse action process or cause you to move forward with a candidate. You can expect to discover the following information about someone’s criminal record:

  • Misdemeanors are “less serious” crimes usually punishable by no more than a year in prison or a small monetary fine.
  • Felonies are serious crimes punishable by more than a year in prison (and often many years) accompanied by considerable fines.
  • On MVR reports, you may see evidence of serious traffic violations that may not always appear on a criminal record, e.g. a civil violation for reckless driving.

Background reports typically include the level at which prosecutors charged a crime (i.e., felony or misdemeanor) alongside the charge name. However, some assessments may contain more nuance.

Alongside the crime, you will also see a “disposition.” The disposition refers to the outcome of the charge, such as “convicted” or “acquitted.” You might also sometimes see “charges dropped,” “charges dismissed,” or “pending.” More on these later.

Understanding the severity of a crime

In some cases, you may see a misdemeanor or felony reported with a number or letter alongside it. This result often refers to the “level” or “class” of the crime. Not all states use the same system, but most states rank crimes and punishments by more detailed criteria. Understanding the charge level is important—it could mean the difference between a simple misdemeanor resulting from a night of poor judgment or it could reflect serious harm.

Both misdemeanors and felonies can fall into a more detailed classification. Some states call these classifications “degrees,” while others call them “classes.” For example, in Florida, there are third-, second-, and first-degree felonies where a first-degree felony is far more serious than a third-degree. Florida also has “life” and “capital” felonies names after the mandatory charges for those punishments—but you aren’t likely to see those on a background check.

Misdemeanors work much the same way but can have even more classes. You may see up to five, from Class A (most serious) to Class E (least serious). At higher levels, some misdemeanors may “flex” into a felony charge if the crime was serious enough. 

Check which classification system your state uses to better understand what you see on a background report.

Interpreting abbreviations

State systems and criminal courts often abbreviate charges and related information for brevity. While this can make some criminal records quite compact and easy to read, it also often confuses employers. What is all that jargon, and how do you interpret it? For example, you might see abbreviations such as:

  • AA/DW, or “aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.”
  • CS, or “controlled substance.”
  • DWLR, or “driving while license revoked.”
  • LSA, or “leaving the scene of an accident.”

As we can see, the meanings of these truncations aren’t always clear. Sometimes, they’re obscure if you aren’t a law enforcement officer. However, understanding these short-form descriptions is key to assessing the facts about someone’s background.

We’ve created a convenient online resource that employers can use as a handy reference when reading background checks from their candidates. If you encounter an abbreviation and aren’t sure what it means, check out our guide.

What if a background check shows a dismissed charge?

Not every charge leads to a conviction—or an acquittal. Sometimes, you may see various dispositions that don’t offer a clear answer. For example, a dismissed charge is often confusing to employers. “Dismissed” means the prosecutor declined to continue the case or a judge found reason to end the trial early. Be careful about treating dismissals like convictions. Instead, a conversation with your applicant is the better choice.

You may also see dispositions such as “nolo contendere” or “no contest.” These are pleas where the individual has not pleaded guilty or not guilty. However, functionally, an NC plea is the same as a guilty plea in the eyes of the courts. You may consider these to be convictions.

Know what won’t appear

Background checks are not supposed to contain expunged or sealed records. In some states, automatic expungement creates disparities between databases, meaning such charges could sometimes still end up on a report. That is why following the adverse action guidelines in the FCRA is so important. Otherwise, you could make an illegal decision.

Most states have limited “look back” periods that range from seven to ten years. In most cases, you will likely not see criminal convictions older than these periods. Background reports also do not typically contain arrest records. If you do encounter arrest records, lean away from considering them. Even though some states allow such considerations, the EEOC deems such actions discriminatory.

Determining Your Disqualifying Factors

Once you’ve received a background report and assessed what exists in a candidate’s record, how do you decide what disqualifies someone? This question is one every employer must ask themselves and decide independently. It is your prerogative to select those you wish to employ. For some, even minor convictions can indicate a lack of good judgment or trustworthiness. Others may proactively aim to provide felons with a “second chance.”

There are two key elements to remember when deciding what your business can and cannot accept. First, you cannot use a “blanket ban” on all convictions, as this could invite discrimination lawsuits. Second, you must apply your standards equally across the organization. Everyone should experience the same level of fairness and consideration.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has guidelines that employers should review.

Using EEOC Guidance to Gather Context About Criminal Charges

Some states, as part of their Fair Chance laws, require employers to conduct an “individualized assessment” of every candidate. So, instead of declining an applicant outright due to a misdemeanor crime on their record, you should gather the facts about that individual. The EEOC’s so-called “green factors” are the perfect assessment tool.

According to the EEOC, employers should look carefully at the following:

  • The nature of the crime and the severity of the incident. Was this an aggravated assault that caused grievous bodily harm or a public affray from a night at the bar gone wrong? Was a burglary a serious undertaking or a minor shoplifting incident?
  • How much time has elapsed since the crime was committed and/or the individual completed their sentence? Someone with a single criminal record from many years ago but who has not re-offended may deserve additional consideration.
  • The nature of the job and its relationship to the crime. A bank reasonably might not want to employ someone convicted of fraud or embezzlement—but a storage warehouse may not need to enforce such a standard.

Using these factors to assess your candidates can result in a more equitable process that’s better guarded against accusations of discrimination or unfairness. There is broad acceptance of the elements as a best practice for employers using background screening—hence why states often enshrine them in their ban the box laws.

Communicating With Applicants Before, During, and After the Vetting Process

How should you communicate about the background check process? Clear lines of communication about the adverse action process can make the applicant process less stressful. Here are some quick tips for effective communication during screening:

  • Provide your standalone disclosure in a compliant and clear way. Take the opportunity to explain to the candidate the nature of the background checks you use. You can’t include this on your disclosure form, so you may do so during an interview or on your application form.
  • Let candidates know how long it typically takes you to receive and interpret their background check. You don’t need to provide daily updates, but you should give a sense of your turnaround time.
  • If you aren’t taking adverse action, communicate that candidates can move on to the next stage of interviewing or onboarding.
  • If you take adverse action, communicate strictly as the law requires and honestly consider any supplementary information candidates provide.
  • Cease communications after a final adverse action notice.

With these guidelines in mind, you can construct a fair, effective process that doesn’t needlessly keep candidates in the dark.

Understanding Background Check Results is Key to Your Program’s Success

Whether you’ve ordered a state-level criminal history report, a county court record, or a broader search, the right understanding is key to interpreting the results. That knowledge also ensures you can provide every candidate with a fair chance at moving on to the next stage of the hiring process. Take the time to study the different kinds of reports and learn how your state reports or abbreviates criminal charges. Doing your homework in this area pays off when you have an HR team that can capably navigate the legal landmines surrounding background checks and hiring.

The right screening partner makes a difference, too. Easy-to-read reports summarizing the most important facts let you simplify interpretations and prevent delays in the hiring process. When you run into confusing results, your partner can provide customer support to keep your pipeline moving. With a proven provider of background checks for employment and a clear understanding of how to read their results, you empower your business to make smarter choices with every new hire.

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Michael Klazema

About Michael Klazema The author

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

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