What do employers look for in a background check?
When it comes to the pre-employment vetting processes, every employer will approach things differently, depending on their size and resources, their industry, and the job or jobs they need to fill. There are many types of background reporting services an employer can order, all of which provide different data types from various sources. Generally speaking, a pre-hire investigation will check for a criminal record, verify resume information, such as past employment, educational credentials, and professional licenses or certifications. Perhaps assess other types of information, such as a driving record or credit history.
Read on to learn more about what shows up on an employment background check.
The Employment Background Check
Employers run history checks on their candidates for various reasons. For instance, by reviewing a person’s criminal past, a hiring manager can assess the level of risk that a candidate might pose if given the job at hand. In some cases, a person’s criminal past may even preclude them from working a specific type of job, such as a registered sex offender interviewing for a teaching position. On the other hand, verification checks of employment, education, and credentials are an essential step for helping employers determine whether their candidates are qualified for the job at hand.
What Employers Can and Will Look At
Below, we have recapped the most common types of employee background verification, as well as the kind of information each of those checks will typically return. Do note that, while employers are typically allowed to consider the information highlighted below as part of the pre-employment process, that privilege is not absolute. Employers must follow the tenets of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) when conducting searches, which include very detailed steps for obtaining a subject’s permission before looking into their past.
Besides, the specific laws and regulations surrounding the information in each category may vary depending on state or local jurisdiction. We have highlighted checks that tend to be more regulated and, therefore, limited.
Work history is one of the top items that hiring managers consider when assessing candidates for a vacancy. The thought is that someone's employment experience can offer a good sense of how qualified they are for a particular job. Some jobs call for candidates to have a specified number of years' experience working in a specific industry or type of position. In other cases, employers will not be nearly as particular about work history. However, they will still consider employment history to determine what skills or hands-on experience applicants may bring to the job.
Employment verification checks work differently than many other types of background checks. No database tracks where people have worked over the years. While candidates self-provide this information on their resumes and/or job applications, verification checks are an opportunity for employers to vet that information for inaccuracies or falsehood—an important step given the commonality of dishonesty on resumes.
Since there is no job history database, these checks always involve direct contact with previous employers. At backgroundchecks.com, we contact past employers on behalf of the hiring team to verify key information on the resume, such as dates of employment and job title.
Some employers consider a candidate’s credit history as part of the pre-employment check process. These types of checks are prevalent in finance-related jobs, such as banking or stock trading, to assess a candidate’s financial habits. Some employers believe that, by evaluating how a person handles money in their personal life, they will know how to grade that person’s overall financial responsibility in the professional realm. A credit check that reveals poor credit can sometimes be a sign of risk for an employer filling a role involving accounts, handling money, or other financial matters.
Employers should tread carefully when using this type of screening, however. While financial literacy and responsibility are essential skills for some jobs, there has been some debate in recent years about how much insight a candidate’s credit record can lend to this type of position. Medical bills, unemployment, and especially student loans are factors that can affect a person’s credit detrimentally. Particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused substantial spikes in unemployment rates nationwide, disqualifying someone for bad credit may be seen as only exacerbating the problem.
It is also worth noting that credit assessments for employment purposes are illegal in some areas. In 11 states – California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington – plus several other jurisdictions (including Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia), employers are heavily restricted in their ability to use credit screenings when making hiring decisions. Employers should be aware of their local and state laws when considering this type of assessment.
Criminal searches are the cornerstone of most verification processes. These records can include “red flags” such as violent offenses, sex crimes, embezzlement convictions, DUIs, or other history that could render someone a risky hire. Employers will look for this type of information to protect their legal interests, as well as their customers, other employees, their finances, and more. For example, an employer hiring for financial accounts and sensitive personal information would want to avoid hiring a candidate with a history of embezzlement or identity theft, lest they take advantage of their position to commit similar crimes. Employers who overlook this type of relevant criminal history in filling a job may face negligent hiring lawsuits if the person they hire ends up facing further accusations for their behavior on the job.
At backgrounchecks.com, we offer various criminal searches, including a county check, a state repository search, a federal court search, and an instant search of our proprietary multi-jurisdictional database.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no single, central database for criminal information. Records about criminal charges or convictions are often filed at the county courthouse level. Still, they may also be filed at U.S. District Courts (in the case of federal crimes) or reported into state repositories (in the case of state records searches). We recommend a multi-faceted criminal exploration, incorporating county checks in places where the candidate has lived recently. We also offer searches of our US OneSEARCH database, which includes more than 650 million criminal records from all 50 states and all U.S. territories.
When hiring for jobs that involve operating vehicles, employers will often include driving record checks as part of their candidate vetting process. While motor vehicle history is not relevant to all jobs, it is one of the most critical metrics for delivery vacancies, trucking jobs, positions that involve operating heavy construction machinery, and other similar types of employment. A history of unsafe driving – from lots of speeding tickets to suspended licenses and DUI convictions – is a safety and liability risk for employers filling these types of positions.
Though sometimes confused with employment verification checks, reference checks serve a different purpose. Employment verifications determine whether resume information is accurate, while professional references are people who can speak to a candidate’s character, job performance, skills, and overall work style. Often, employers will ask that candidates list two to three references as part of the job application. Reference checks involve contacting those individuals directly to learn more about the candidate.
Beyond work history and references, verification checks can also check a person’s educational credentials and professional licenses. Education checks involve contacting a college or university to verify that a candidate attended, as well as dates of attendance, degrees or certificates received, and any honors attached to those degrees.
Professional license verifications ensure that a person holds the license(s) necessary to work in a specific field in a particular state. Examples include teaching licenses, licenses to practice law, nursing licenses, or licenses to practice medicine.
What Employers Cannot look At
While different types of employment background checks can reveal much information about a candidate, there are certain types of information that employers are not allowed to access—even as part of checks that might seem to reveal that information. Examples include:
While education verifications will indicate whether a candidate earned the college degree they claimed on their resume - these checks won’t show a full school record. Employers won’t know which courses the candidate took, for instance, or what grades they received. School records from further back—high school, for example—are also not accessible to employers.
There is no type of history checking service available to private employers to access a person’s military record. While candidates may voluntarily offer information about their military service, if applicable, employers should not plan to vet that information, check for details about a person’s military history, or look for evidence of discharges.
Much of the information gleaned through an employee or candidate investigation is technically part of the public record. Medical records do not fall into this category: they are private documents, with privacy ensured by doctor-patient confidentiality. Employers should not expect to learn about medical history through background screening.
While criminal history is at the heart of many pre-employment vetting protocols, that doesn’t mean employers have free reign to access or make hiring decisions based on the full scope of a person’s criminal record?. Records that have been sealed or expunged, for instance, should not feature on a check report and cannot be used to bar a person from employment. Many states also have laws that restrict the use of arrest records in hiring, that specify a criminal history lookback period of seven years, or both. Employers should take care to learn the laws of where they do business to avoid any compliance issues in how they use criminal details in their hiring decisions.
How to Prepare for an Employment Background Check
Asking “What do employers look for in a background check?” is a smart strategy for job seekers wishing to prepare themselves for the employment screening process. Here are a few steps that candidates can keep in mind to avoid any surprises:
Understand what previous employers might say about you
Contrary to widespread assumption, most employers will stick to answering only simple point-of-fact questions when called for an employment verification check. Job titles, employment dates, the reason for leaving, eligibility for rehire: these topics are objective talking points that HR managers are willing to answer. More freeform questions, such as a past employer's comment on character or work ethic, are challenging territory. HR managers or former supervisors will often decline to answer them to avoid legal claims of defamation from their previous employees.
Obtain your records
Job seekers concerned about the verification process are often encouraged to run investigations on themselves. At backgroundchecks.com, we even offer a self-check service. This strategy provides an opportunity for a candidate to see their record and get a preview of what their hiring manager will see. Running a self-check can be a valuable way to make sure that an expungement has gone through or simply to achieve peace of mind.
Check your credit
Like a self-check for criminal history, a self-check for credit can give a sense of what employers might see and what conclusions they could draw from that information. Job seekers will sometimes use these self-assessments to determine if they need to provide any explanations about their history that may help provide context for less-than-flattering results. Note that every consumer is entitled to a free credit report from each of the three credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) each year.
Frequently Asked Questions
What can disqualify a job candidate on a background check?
The answer to this question will vary from one employer to the next. Factors such as the industry where the employer operates, industry regulations, state and local laws, the job in question, specific company policies, and even the leniency of individual hiring managers can affect the answer. The most common disqualifiers in the vetting process tend to be either severe felony convictions (violent crimes, sex offenses, etc.) or blatant dishonesty of the job seeker. These factors register as “red flags” almost no matter the industry or company. However, as previously discussed, other factors can be disqualifiers as well, depending on the job—such as a history of dangerous driving, for jobs that involve driving, or bad credit, for financial-related positions.
How does a background check verify employment?
At backgroundchecks.com, we conduct employment verifications by contacting a candidate’s past employers and asking key questions about employment dates, job titles, and other information.
What can be revealed in a background check?
A “background check” is, in fact, multiple checks or searches of various data sources, intending to provide a detailed and wide-reaching view of a job candidate’s past. A pre-hire screening company can check a person’s criminal past, driving history, past employment, education, and professional licensing. It also includes references, civil court history, address history, Social Security Number, aliases/alternate names, credit, bankruptcy history, social media presence, and more.
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