What does a background check show? The answer is complex due to the broad number of factors that different records searches entail. A background review may consist of criminal records, driving records, civil court records, credit history checks, work history, education, and more, depending on the type of background screening.
While every employer takes a slightly different approach to background screenings—for instance, Amazon.com's policies are likely different from a small-town local restaurant—it is valuable for employers and job seekers alike to understand the building blocks of a background report.
Read on to learn about different records reports and what they can show.
What Pre-Employment Background Checks Can Reveal
Pre-employment background checks occur when an employer performs due diligence on a job applicant to ensure that the candidate is a sound and appropriate hire. That process involves looking at various information—from crime records to resume verifications—to get a fuller picture of the candidate.
Each detail is a critical piece of the puzzle. Criminal history records can help a company maintain a safe environment for customers and employees. A thorough pre-employment screening can help verify that applicants are being honest about their identities. Background checks and pre-employment screenings are two terms for a resource that protects employers and their employees, their customers, their clients, and the public.
Criminal background checks are the most commonly used service for pre-employment screening. These resources search criminal records databases for evidence of past convictions.
Since most criminal cases are tried and filed at the county level, the starting point for most employers is to search within the county where their business operates. Some companies widen the scope by first running address history searches on their candidates. They then order county criminal background checks in each locale the candidate has recently called home.
In addition to county searches, it is possible to conduct criminal checks at the state or federal level. County courts often report into state data repositories, which offer a broader geographical scope for criminal background screening.
Federal criminal searches are reports of records from the U.S. District Courts. These checks work similarly to county criminal searches but instead find records of federal crimes.
Finally, there are multi-jurisdictional criminal searches. These searches pull from large databases of criminal information. While there is no central database of records in the United States, some companies—including backgroundchecks.com—maintain proprietary databases with records spanning many jurisdictions. Our US OneSEARCH tool allows employers to instantly search more than 650 million records from all 50 states and all U.S. territories.
Criminal history searches are just one element of due diligence. Most employers also find it important to verify the information that candidates provide on their resumes.
A criminal background check won't reveal anything about a person's past employment or education, so how can employers verify an applicant's claims? A few different verifications are available from backgroundchecks.com, including employment history, education, professional licensing, and even reference reviews.
An employment verification check confirms the validity of the work history information that a candidate provided when applying. Embellishments and even outright lies aren't uncommon on resumes. Employment verification involves contacting previous employers—usually HR staff—and verifying the accuracy of essential information such as job title, service length, and duties.
One common question pertains to what employers can or cannot say about a previous employee during such verification. Contrary to popular belief, no federal law restricts what employers can disclose about past employees. For instance, if a company fired a candidate from a previous job, an HR manager can choose to disclose that information and explain the reason behind the decision.
However, most employers tread carefully in this area for fear of defamation lawsuits. Employers don't typically want to comment too much on the character or work ethic of past employees. As a result, most employment verifications focus on details that are objective and easily verifiable.
Education verification is another typical pre-employment check. Most prospective employers require their candidates to hold specific educational qualifications when filling a job. For instance, many employers ask that applicants for a position have a bachelor's degree. Some jobs require more specific academic credentials or a higher level of education, such as a master's degree.
Statistics show that most applicants are not entirely truthful on their resumes and often exaggerate their skills and abilities. This untruthfulness applies to education as well as employment history. Therefore, services offering education verification play an essential role in ensuring that employers make well-informed decisions. These checks can determine if a candidate attended the university they claim on their resume. Further, such assessments can reveal whether the individual graduated, which degree they earned, and their dates of attendance.
Though significantly less common in pre-employment screening than criminal record checks, civil records sometimes also have a role in vetting job candidates. Because criminal reports often involve searching county courthouse data, some individuals mistakenly assume that those resources will also include other court matters. That is not true. Lawsuits, contract disputes, and other legal disagreements won't appear in a criminal search.
A civil history background check is the right choice instead. While a criminal background check searches court records for files of convictions, a civil court case comes to court through the alleged victim of wrongdoing, not by the state. Lawsuits filed against and between individuals are a part of a civil court's records. There are two types of background checks for civil history: county and federal.
Just as county courts file most criminal charges, most common civil matters are filed at the county court level. County civil courts typically take on any civil case that pertains to local or state law. This can include contractual disputes, housing evictions, personal injury claims, consumer rights matters, restraining orders, etc. The list of possible civil claims is extensive. Civil court records can also include family law cases, including divorces, child support issues, and estate disposals.
Running a civil history search can allow an employer to learn whether a candidate has been involved in civil disputes, whether as a plaintiff or as a defendant. Such screening can give an employer some information about civil cases, including claims, suits, and judgements.
Federal civil records searches can find information pertaining to any civil matter heard in a U.S. District Court. Federal court districts will typically only hear civil cases when the U.S. government is involved as a party, or the civil dispute involves residents of different states. If a person has sued the government alleging a violation of constitutional rights, that matter would be heard at the U.S. District Court level. Such a case would therefore appear on a federal civil records check. Other issues such as tax disputes would also report at the federal court level.
Civil history checks can prove exceedingly useful, particularly when hiring for advanced positions in management or the C-suite and jobs involving significant financial responsibilities. Someone with a history of lawsuits against them for violating federal regulations, for instance, is probably not a safe bet for an organization filling a leadership role.
Every individual with a driver's license has a driving record. However, what this record reveals will vary significantly from one driver to the next. When hiring for a position that involves frequent driving, employers will often consider a candidate's driving history before offering that person a job. Learning about the person's driving background is vital for ensuring safety and minimizing liability risks in the transportation sector. It is just as important as a criminal background check in that regard.
A driving record report can reveal any suspensions, traffic violations, or fines associated with a job candidate's driver's license. Speeding tickets, moving violations, reckless driving charges, license suspensions, and other infractions are all reflected on a driving record report.
Details about license classifications and endorsements also appear on driving record reports, which can help an employer determine whether a candidate has the type of license necessary for the job at hand. For instance, the license requirements for a delivery driver for a pizza place are different from those for a truck driver operating heavy freight vehicles. A driving record check will tell an employer which type of license their candidate has.
Identity verification components of a background check typically use a person's Social Security Number to find names and aliases associated with that SSN over the years. Sometimes, this tool can help an employer spot identity theft by revealing that a candidate is not who they are claiming to be. These reports can also be crucial for flagging a person using aliases to avoid detection for past criminal activity. Someone may apply to a job with a fake name to avoid detection of active arrest warrants, inclusion in a sex offender registry inclusions, or for prior professional discipline.
Most often, if an identity verification report pings a past alias, it is because the person has changed their name at some time in their life. The most common example of a name change is a person who got married and changed their surname. No matter the reason for a name change, an SSN check can find it.
Alias reports are valuable to employers even in cases where there was no elusive intent behind a name change. Most types of background checks—including criminal searches—are name-based. As a result, if a person with a criminal background supplies a fake name to an employer, they can sometimes avoid the appearance of red flags on their background check report. The added step of identity verification reduces this likelihood. Learning about past aliases enables an employer to run reports on each name, improving their chances of finding any potentially hidden information.
In some cases, employers will include credit history reports as part of the pre-employment vetting process. This practice is most common for jobs in banking, stock trading, financial advising, and other work involving access to funds and assets. Credit history reports can tell employers more about a person's money management habits and overall financial responsibility. An employer hiring for a job that involves the management of finances might have reservations about choosing a candidate whose personal credit history shows many missed payments or a high debt load.
Credit record reports use a person's name, birth date, and Social Security Number to find out their credit history. Contrary to popular belief, this type of search is not the same as the "credit rating check" that banks use when deciding whether to approve an applicant for a loan or line of credit.
Credit history background checks allow employers to discover specific details about a candidate's credit. Elements in these credit reports might include:
- Credit limits
- Average monthly payments
- Current balances on credit cards and lines of credit
- Percentage of available credit
- Accounts that are past due (and the past due amounts on those accounts), and more.
- Information related to bankruptcies and tax liens.
While credit record searches are a vital tool for some employers, critics have pushed for a reduction in the use of these tools for employment purposes. They argue that a person's credit should not impact their ability to find a job, particularly given that extenuating circumstances—such as unexpected medical bills—can dramatically damage a person's credit record quickly.
There have been legislative movements in parts of the country to ban or restrict credit record reports for hiring. 11 states currently have legislation for this: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington. Some cities also have restrictions, including Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia.
Employers should be aware of these restrictions and should consult with their attorneys to determine whether they are legally allowed to consider a candidate's credit history as part of their pre-employment review.
When a company follows up with the references listed on a candidate's resume, they expect the individuals listed to provide a subjective assessment of the candidate. Assuming that the applicant has already asked the individuals listed to speak on their behalf, recruiters ask about skills, personality, and work ethic.
Other types of background checks
Employers may utilize other types of background screenings in certain situations, from social media background checks to bankruptcy reports. What does a background check show in these scenarios?
What does a fingerprint background show?
It is a misconception that fingerprint background checks are more in-depth or accurate than name-based checks. Fingerprinting is simply a different way of matching a person to a criminal record.
Police may fingerprint suspects following an arrest. If a criminal file includes fingerprint data, a fingerprint background search will match that file. However, because fingerprinting is not a universal practice and not all crime records include fingerprint information, the process has limitations. Incorporating fingerprints into the pre-employment vetting process does not guarantee that the report will be more accurate than searching based on the person's name, birth date, and SSN.
What does an FBI background show?
What does a background check show when it is run through an FBI database?
Usually, FBI checks refer to the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS). IAFIS is the hub of the FBI's background screening process. It is a fingerprint database that includes more than 70 million records. Fingerprints are on file in the FBI database for criminal offenders and anyone who has legally purchased a firearm or sought a job for which fingerprinting is a requirement. It includes many positions in government, education, and healthcare.
Not all employers have access to IAFIS. For instance, public schools can run FBI fingerprint checks, but the average retail store cannot. FBI background screenings are not relevant to most employers, particularly private companies.
What does a Level 2 background show?
The phrase "Level 2 background check" means different things depending on the background check provider and location.
In Florida, background investigations fall into Level 1 and Level 2 categories. A Level 1 check is the less in-depth background screening; Level 2 is the more detailed option.
Level 1 checks in Florida include state-only crime records searches, verifications of past employment, sex offender registry checks, and additional criminal searches at the county level. Level 2 checks add fingerprint-based checks of Florida Department of Law Enforcement records and national FBI databases.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do arrests show on background checks?
The answer to this question depends on the state. Some states have laws prohibiting employers from asking about arrest records or using them for employment-related decisions. Since arrests themselves are not proof of guilt, it is often unfair to rely on them as a barrier to employment.
At backgroundchecks.com, we always exclude arrest history information from our background check reports to protect our customers from compliance issues. To learn whether your state legally allows the use of arrest records for hiring, read this white paper.
Do dismissed cases show on background checks?
Dismissed cases may sometimes show up on a candidate's background check report. A criminal charge stays on the person's record even if the charges are dismissed or the case ends in "not guilty" verdict. With these facts in mind, employers should recognize the difference between a formal conviction and a dropped criminal charge. A conviction offers substantiation of guilt, while a dismissed charge shows that a person was accused or suspected of a crime but never proven guilty. They may never have even made it into court.
Do expunged or sealed records show on background checks?
If a candidate has successfully petitioned to have their criminal records sealed or expunged, those convictions should no longer appear on a background check report.
A sealed record still exists but is typically only accessible by law enforcement agencies. Expunged records are effectively invisible on a person's background check. If a person had one conviction on their record and had it expunged, they could accurately answer "No" to the question, "Have you ever been convicted of a crime?"
Job seekers whose criminal histories make it harder to find employment can explore having their records sealed or expunged. At backgroundchecks.com, we've designed a program called MyClearStart to help employers get information about expungement into the hands of their applicants.
Do traffic tickets show on criminal background checks?
No. In most cases, an employer performing background checks will need to run a motor vehicle records check to determine a candidate's driving history.
Traffic tickets do not show up on criminal checks. These tickets are civil citations, which means that they are not misdemeanors or felonies. However, some driving offenses do rise to the level of misdemeanors or felonies. Such offenses can include reckless driving or driving under the influence of alcohol. These are criminal convictions, and thus they will appear on a criminal background report.
How far back do criminal history checks go?
How far back a criminal background check goes depends on the state. There is no federal law on this subject. While the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) has rules limiting the "adverse information" that a credit bureau can report about consumers on credit reports—such as bankruptcy cases or tax liens—there is no corresponding rule for criminal screenings. What does a background check show in terms of time? Most states decide this matter on their own. The norm is for criminal background checks to go back seven years.
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