What Does a Background Check Show? Background Screening 101
What does a background check show? The answer is complex due to the broad number of factors that different records searches entail. A background record review may consist of criminal records, driving records, civil court records, credit history checks, work history, education, and more, all 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
What will a background check report include? Speaking broadly, pre-employment background checks occur when an employer performs the necessary due diligence on a candidate to make sure that the candidate is a sound and smart hire. That process involves looking at an array of information—from crime records to resume verifications to references—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. Verifications of education, employment, professional licenses, and other qualifications help employers to make sure that a candidate is qualified to perform the job at hand. A thorough pre-employment screening can help verify that applicants are being honest about their identities—and even confirm that they aren’t internationally-wanted criminals.
Background screenings and pre-employment screenings are all terms for a resource that protects employers and their employees, their customers, their clients, and the public.
The most commonly-used types of background checks for pre-employment screening are crime record reports. These resources search crime records databases at multiple levels in search of criminal convictions.
Since most criminal cases are tried and filed at the county level, the starting point for most employers is to search crime records in the county where their business is based. Some companies widen the scope by running address history searches on their candidates and then ordering county criminal background checks in each county that the candidate has lived within the past few years.
In addition to county searches, it is possible to conduct criminal searches at the state level or federal level. County courts will often report into state repositories, which can then offer a broader geographical radius for a criminal background screening.
Federal criminal searches are reports of U.S. District Courts; these checks work similarly to county criminal searches but instead find records pertaining to 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 search 650 million records from all 50 states (plus all U.S. territories) instantly.
Criminal history searches are just one piece of thorough employment due diligence. Most employers also find it important to verify the information that candidates provide on their resumes and job applications.
A criminal background check won’t reveal anything about a person’s past employment or education, so an employer must review these details using verification searches. There are a few different verifications available from backgroundchecks.com, including employment history, education, professional licensing or certification, and reference reviews.
An employment verification check primarily confirms the validity of the work history information that a candidate provided on their resume. It is common for job applicants to embellish their work history to make it look more impressive. That might mean tweaking a job title, changing a start or end date, or listing job responsibilities that were outside the scope of the position. Employment verifications involve contacting previous employers—usually HR staff—and verifying the accuracy of these key information points.
One common question about employment reports is what employers can or cannot say about a previous employee. Contrary to popular belief, there is no federal law restricting what employers can disclose about past employees. For instance, if a candidate was fired from a previous job, an HR manager can disclose that information to that candidate’s prospective future employer and explain the reasoning behind the decision.
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—especially if they don’t have anything nice to say. They also don’t want to be taken to court for slandering that person. As a result, most employment verifications focus on details that are objective and easily verifiable, such as employment dates, job title, duties or responsibilities, and salary information.
Along with employment verifications, another common verification is the education verification. When filling a job, most prospective employers require their candidates to hold specific educational qualifications. For instance, many employers ask that applicants for a position have a bachelor’s degree. Some jobs require more specific educational credentials (such as a specific type of bachelor’s degree) 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. Education verifications play an essential role in ensuring that employers make suitable hiring decisions. They can determine if a candidate attended the college or university that they claim to have attended, whether they graduated, which degree (if any) they earned, their dates of attendance, and any honors attached to the degree.
Though significantly less common in pre-employment screening than crime record checks, civil records searches play their own essential role in the vetting of a job candidate. Because criminal reports often involve a search of county courthouse data, some individuals mistakenly assume that those resources will also include other court matters—such as lawsuits, contract disputes, or other legal disagreements.
A civil history background check is a different matter from a crime records report. While a criminal background check searches court records for files pertaining to criminal activity (including convictions, arrests, warrants, and more), a civil court report searches a separate set of court records. Civil cases are cases brought to court by the alleged victim of wrongdoing, not by the state. When someone is sued for wrongdoing by another individual, these case records form 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 matter that pertains to local or state law—a long list that includes contractual matters, eviction or other housing disputes, car accidents, personal injury claims, consumer rights matters, restraining orders, small claims, foreclosures, discrimination or other civil rights violations, product liability, and nonpayment for goods or services.
One significant category of county civil court matters is family law, which can include anything from divorces to child custody or child support matters to estate disputes.
Running a civil history search at the county level can give an employer the opportunity to learn whether a candidate had been involved in any of these types of court disputes, whether as a plaintiff or as a defendant. This kind of employment screening can give an employer information about the case, including claims, suits, and judgments.
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 in situations where 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 (and it would show on a federal civil records check). Other matters, such as tax disputes or violations of government regulations, would also report at the federal court level.
Particularly for higher-up positions—including management roles, presidential or C-suite jobs, and highly visible leadership positions—and jobs involving significant financial responsibilities, employers can glean critical information about a candidate by reviewing their civil history. Someone with a variety 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. What a driving record reveals, however, will vary significantly from one driver to the next. When hiring for a position that involves driving, prospective employers will often consider a candidate’s driving history before offering that person a driving-centric position. In such a hiring scenario, learning about the person’s driving background is just as vital for ensuring safety and minimizing liability risk as vetting their criminal background.
A driving record report can reveal any suspensions, traffic violations, or fines that are 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 than the requirements for a truck driver who will be operating heavy freight vehicles. A driving record check will tell an employer which license their candidate has.
Identity verification components of a background check typically use a person’s Social Security Number to find names and aliases that have been 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 who is using aliases to avoid detection for past criminal activity, active arrest warrants, sex offender registry inclusions, and other concerns.
Most often, if an identity verification report pings a past alias, it is because the person has changed their name at some point during their lifetime. The most common example of a name change is a person who got married and shed their maiden name to take on a partner’s last name. 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 malicious or elusive intent with the 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 red flags on their background check report just because the employer doesn’t use the added step of identity verification. Learning about past aliases enables an employer to run reports on each name, improving their chances of finding any information about the person’s past that they may be trying to hide.
Identity verifications also incorporate address histories, which can help employers flesh out and broaden their background checks.
In some cases—particularly for jobs in banking, stock trading, financial advising, and other finance or money-centric industries—employers will include credit history reports as part of the pre-employment vetting process. These 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 for a business might have reservations about choosing a candidate whose personal credit history shows many missed payments and other credit-damaging behaviors.
Credit record reports use a person’s name, birth date, and Social Security Number to find out about their credit history. Contrary to popular belief, this type of search is not the same as the “credit rating check” that banks or credit cards use when deciding whether to approve an applicant for a loan or line of credit.
Credit history background checks allow employers to find out specific details about a candidate’s credit. Details 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. A credit record report can also show information related to bankruptcies and tax liens.
While credit record searches are an important tool for some employers, critics have pushed a reduction in the use of these employment screening 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 the loss of a job or unexpected medical bills—can dramatically damage a person’s credit in a short amount of time.
There have been legislative movements in parts of the country to ban or restrict credit record reports for hiring. 11 states currently have legislation to this effect: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington. Some cities have restrictions as well, 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 applying for the position. Assuming that a candidate has already asked the individuals listed to speak on their behalf, recruiters will ask about skills, personality, and work ethic—all factors that will influence how the individual fits into a new work environment.
Other types of background checks
In certain situations, employers may utilize other types of background screenings, from social media background checks to bankruptcy reports. Here are a few common questions about these background screening types.
What does a fingerprint background show?
It is a misconception that fingerprint background checks are more in-depth or accurate than a name-based check. Fingerprinting is a different way of matching a person to a crime record. Sometimes, police will fingerprint suspects after 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 because not all crime records include fingerprint information, incorporating fingerprints into the pre-employment vetting process is not a guarantee that the report will be more accurate than a search based on the person’s name, birthdate, and SSN.
What does an FBI background show?
What does a background report 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, a fingerprint database that includes more than 70 million records. Fingerprints are on file in the FBI database not just for criminal offenders but also for anyone who has legally purchased a firearm or sought a job for which fingerprinting is required (including many positions in government, education, and healthcare).
Not all employers have access to IAFIS. Public schools can run FBI fingerprint checks, for instance, but the average retail store cannot. As such, 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 that prohibit employers from asking about arrest records or using them for employment-related decisions. Since arrests themselves are not proof of guilt, they are unreliable and often unfair 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 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 if the case ends in a not-guilty verdict. With these facts in mind, employers should recognize the difference between a formal conviction and a charge that did not go further. A conviction offers proof or substantiation of guilt, but a dismissed charge shows that a person was accused or suspected of a crime but never proven guilty.
Do expunged or sealed records show on background checks?
If a candidate has successfully petitioned to have his or her criminal records sealed or expunged, those convictions should no longer appear on a background check report.
An expunged record is essentially scrubbed from a person’s history. 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?” A sealed record still exists, but it should only be accessible to law enforcement agencies.
Job seekers whose criminal histories are making 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 find out about 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, there are driving offenses that are misdemeanors or felonies, including reckless driving and driving under the influence of alcohol. These are criminal convictions that 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.
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 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.