Questions and Answers, Background Checks

How to Do a Background Check: The Basics of Vetting Someone Else’s History

Whether you are hiring a new employee to flesh out your team or simply want to know more about the person who just moved in next door, you may wonder how to do a background check. 

In professional and personal contexts alike, looking into criminal history, past employment, and other elements of a person’s past can offer peace of mind and deeper understanding. However, if you plan to conduct a background screening on someone, it’s important to know the legal implications of that decision, among other potential complicating factors. In this post, we will explore how to conduct background checks in a smart, legally compliant way.

Can You Run a Background Check on Another Person?

The first question is the most obvious one: Can you go searching into someone else’s past?

In the simplest terms, the answer is yes; you can run a background check on anyone. If you have a person’s name, it is possible to look into their history, check their criminal record, find details about their driving record, and more. However, an important caveat here is that there could be legal implications to running a background check on someone without their consent. 

How to Do Background Checks in a Professional Setting

The most important question to ask yourself before running a background check concerns the purpose behind the check. Are you conducting a background check in a professional setting? Perhaps you are screening a job candidate you want to hire for your business. Alternatively, maybe you are a landlord who wants to vet potential tenants before you approve or deny their applications.

In either of these situations, you plan to use a person’s background check information to make important decisions about them and their future. Numerous laws dictate what you can and can’t do in this setting. Crucially, you must obtain the consent of the person you are vetting before you move forward with the background check. Otherwise, you are failing to comply with the law. You are also disrespecting the legally-protected rights of a prospective employee or tenant. 

Breaches of compliance on this level can lead to legal action. For instance, employers must comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) when conducting background checks for employment purposes. The FCRA has several detailed steps and policies that employers must follow. These requirements concern everything from the consent form to the process an employer should use to notify a candidate about an adverse hiring decision.

Ultimately, you can run a background check on anyone in a professional setting. In fact, employers, landlords, and other decision-makers are obliged to screen candidates to protect themselves legally. If an employer hires a candidate with a violent history and that person ends up hurting a coworker or customer, the employer can be held liable and sued for negligent hiring. Not running a background check usually poses a more significant legal risk for an employer than running one. 

However, employers can also face legal blowback if they don’t follow proper protocol to ensure FCRA compliant process. Said another way, you are only allowed to run background checks in a professional setting if you have gone through the proper channels to disclose your intentions and obtain authorization. 

The FCRA, along with other background check-related legislation, can be complex and difficult to understand at first. The good news is that learning the ropes is possible, especially with the guidance of a legal professional. Most employers use background checks to screen all new hires, and the majority never run into any legal issues related to their checks. That’s because these employers are extremely careful about following the FCRA to the letter, as failing to do so can be an extremely costly mistake. Your business can learn the rules and guidelines too, and establish smart policies that protect you from negligence without risking lapses in compliance.

How to Do Background Checks in a Personal Setting

Vetting prospective employees has become one of the most popular applications for background checks. Not all background checks occur in the employment setting, though, or even in a professional setting. If you wish to run a background check on someone for personal reasons, it’s entirely different from screening a potential tenant or job applicant. 

Here are a few potential background check scenarios that fall more on the personal side of the spectrum:

  • Personal relationships: Perhaps you met someone online or via a dating app, and you want to know more about them. You are considering starting a personal relationship with this person, but want to make you can trust the person first. In this scenario, you might run a background check on your would-be significant other to make sure they are who they say they are.
  • Babysitting: You are looking for a babysitter who can care for your children after school or in the evenings. No one you know personally can take on the responsibility, which means you need to hire someone you don’t know. You might run a background check in this situation to look for potential red flags. You want to have peace of mind that your children are in good hands, and a background check can give it to you.
  • Curiosity: You recently moved into a new neighborhood and have noticed some suspicious people hanging around the neighbor’s house. You think the neighbor might be involved in some sort of criminal operation, but you aren’t sure how to find out for sure. In this situation, you might be interested in running a background check on your neighbor to see what you can learn about them and their history.
  • Self-checks: You are preparing for a job interview and want to know precisely what an employer will see when they run a criminal search on you. As a precaution, you run a background check on yourself to make sure your record looks the way it should.

The rules around these types of background checks are less understood and typically less enforced than the rules around professional setting background checks. When an employer runs a background check on you, they know they need to obtain your consent to avoid problems with compliance. If you asked the average person whether applicant consent was necessary for an employment screening, they would say yes. Answers would probably vary more if you asked someone about background checks for babysitters or significant others. Do you need consent if you want to run one of these checks?

The answer is complicated. Criminal history information (and most other information that background checks find) is public record. You can sometimes find this information just by doing a Google search of a person’s name. If you don’t need to consent to Google someone or look them up on social media, do you need consent to order a more formal check through a background check service?

If you want to run a name-based background check on a significant other, a neighbor, or someone else for purposes relevant exclusively to a personal relationship, you can do so without consent. If there is any element of an employer-employee relationship at play, you need written permission from the person you are vetting. 

Hiring a babysitter to watch your kids might be a less formal process than hiring someone for a full-time job at your business. However, you are still technically serving as the “employer” for the person you choose to hire for this role. As such, it’s always wisest to get consent. The same rule applies to anyone you hire to provide a service for you and your family — from housekeepers to investment brokers to realtors. It is always better to be safe than sorry for FCRA compliance.

People Also Ask:

  • How do you get a background check as a private citizen? Most of the checks we offer at backgroundchecks.com are geared toward employers or other entities operating in professional capacities. However, we also provide a background check service through a partnership with PeopleFinders that private citizens can use to gather information about neighbors, significant others, friends, or other personal acquaintances. 
  • How long does a law enforcement background check take? Many criminal background checks involve going directly to a law enforcement source—be it a county court or a state police repository. These searches typically take several days, though the wait time can vary depending on the law enforcement agency or jurisdiction.
  • How to do an anonymous background check for criminal records? A personal background check, such as the PeopleFinders one described above, can be done “anonymously” in that the subject of the background check won’t be notified. If you are vetting someone in a professional capacity, it is illegal to do so without informing the person about the background check.
  • How to Get a Self-Background Check? We offer a dedicated service to help customers run criminal history searches on themselves. 
  • How do I do an employment background check? Employment background checks require compliance with a variety of laws. In addition to the FCRA and guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), employers must be aware of any local or state laws that may apply. For instance, many jurisdictions now have “ban the box” laws, which prohibit questions about criminal history on the job application and often delay the background check until later in the hiring process. Make sure you know any relevant laws and ordinances before conducting an employment background check.
  • What kind of credit check do employers run? Employers use various background checks to vet candidates, including criminal history searches, verifications for past employment and education, reference checks, and more.
  • Can employers go back on your criminal background forever? Most states have laws limiting the criminal background check lookback period to the past seven years.
Michael Klazema

About Michael Klazema The author

Michael Klazema is Chief Marketing Technologist at EY-VODW.com and has over two decades of experience in digital consulting, online product management, and technology innovation. He 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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