What Really Shows up on a Criminal Background Check
What shows up on a criminal background check? Most jobs will require you to go through a background screening as part of the pre-hire candidate vetting process. However, many candidates don’t have a full understanding of how background checks work or which types of information they can uncover.
In this post, we will explore the nuances of pre-employment background checks with the goal of answering the question, “What shows up on a criminal background check for employment?”
Criminal Background Check vs Regular Background Check
The first thing to understand about employment-related background checks is that there can be a difference between a criminal background check and a “regular background check.”
In this article, we will focus on the types of information that can appear on a criminal background check report. However, while criminal history searches are the core of most employers’ candidate background screening protocols, that doesn’t mean that they are the only component. A pre-employment screening can also incorporate a variety of information that goes beyond crimes and criminal history.
Which other types of checks might a prospective employer use to learn more about you? Here are a few other popular employment background check types:
- Education history verification checks. These background screenings are intended to verify the information that you provided on your resume about your educational background. Employers can use background checks to check in with a past college or university to verify your attendance, when you attended, whether you graduated or received a degree, the degree that you received, and any honors attached to the degree.
- Work history verification checks. Similar to education verifications, work history checks allow employers to contact the previous employers listed on your resume to verify your employment, job title(s), employment dates, and other key information.
- Professional license verifications. If you are applying for a job that requires a specific professional license or certification—be it a teaching license or an electrician’s license—expect that the employer will verify that your license is genuine and in good standing.
- Reference checks. Employers will often contact professional references, which might include past managers or supervisors, mentors, colleagues, professors, and anyone else who can speak to your character, work ethic, and other qualities.
- Driving history checks. Jobs that involve operating a motor vehicle will typically include a driving history check as part of the screening process. This background check allows an employer to see which driver’s license you hold, whether the license is in good standing (e.g., not suspended or restricted), how many points you have on your license from tickets or infractions, and other details.
- Credit history checks. Positions in finance may require credit history checks as part of the background check process. A credit history check can show details about credit lines and limits, average monthly payments, past due amounts, balances, and more. Some employers believe that running this check can give them a window into the financial habits and responsibility of a candidate.
- Civil court checks. Issues such as breaches of contract, property damage, and violations of constitutional rights don’t always lead to criminal charges or convictions. However, even when they are not a part of a criminal record, these cases may appear in county or federal civil courts, prompting some employers to use court records checks as part of the background check hiring process.
- Sex offender checks. Though a criminal background check will usually indicate whether a person is a registered sex offender, pre-employment screening protocols may also incorporate standalone sex offender registry searches.
- Drug tests. Some heavily regulated industries require employers to drug test their workers regularly to fulfill safety requirements. Employers may also institute their own testing policies in pursuit of drug-free workplaces. In either case, drug testing is often a part of the pre-employment background check process.
All these checks can fall under the umbrella of a “regular background check,” depending on the employer. Not every employer will run every one of these checks—for instance, it probably doesn’t make sense for an office manager to run a driving history check on a prospective employee who will be working a desk job. However, by picking and choosing the most relevant background check types to suit their professional circumstances (and the positions that they are trying to fill), employers can build near-comprehensive background screening strategies that provide relevant details about job candidates.
None of this information is incorporated into the criminal history check: criminal background checks focus on felony and misdemeanor convictions. In the next section, we will take a more detailed look at which specific pieces of information might appear on a search of your criminal record.
What Shows up on a Criminal Background Check
A criminal history check may report any information pertaining to crimes for which the subject has been charged, tried, or convicted. The primary purpose of these checks, in most cases, is to find out whether a candidate has been convicted of any misdemeanor or felony crimes. Employers are most concerned with convictions, as convictions offer proof of guilt, which an arrest record or pending charge does not do.
Criminal background checks will also often include pending criminal charges or arrests. Employers are usually advised not to weigh these criminal background check findings as heavily as convictions since there is no proof of guilt without a verdict and conviction.
Some employers may look at pre-conviction details and think twice about a hiring decision, but keep in mind that some states have laws in place that restrict or bar employers from considering arrest histories for employment.
Because the average employer is not familiar with precisely how laws over arrest records vary from state to state, backgroundchecks.com excludes arrests that didn’t lead to a conviction from our criminal history checks. By removing this information from our reports, we help the employers that use our services avoid unintentionally violating state laws.
Specific details that will be included on criminal background check reports include:
- The defendant, or the name of the individual charged with a crime.
- The offense, or the crime with which the subject was charged. Includes information about whether the crime is considered a misdemeanor or a felony and the degree.
- The filing, or how the charges were initially filed, the case numbers associated with the charges, and other relevant details about the court case.
- The verdict, or the outcome of the charge.
- The sentencing, including any jail time or fines.
- The disposition, or any details about a settlement in the case.
One thing that should never show up on a criminal background check: a criminal conviction that has been expunged or sealed. Criminal justice reform advocates have taken steps in recent years to remove some of the barriers to expungement, particularly as marijuana legalization trends throughout the nation have left many ex-offenders with convictions for offenses that are no longer crimes. If a subject has successfully petitioned the court to have their records sealed or expunged, that information should no longer appear on their criminal background report. Expungement rules vary slightly from state to state.
The restrictions on how far back criminal history checks can reach also vary by state. In some states—including California, Kansas, Massachusetts, Maryland, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, and Washington—it is illegal for background check companies to disclose information about convictions that are more than seven years old. In Hawaii, that policy is even stricter: a seven-year limit for felonies and a five-year limit for misdemeanors. Some other states do not have any limit on how far back criminal checks can look.
Name-Based vs. Fingerprinting Criminal Background Checks
The checks that we perform at backgroundchecks.com rely on name, date of birth, and Social Security Number to find and match records to the subject. However, there are also ways of running criminal background checks that incorporate fingerprinting. What is the difference, and which method is superior? Let’s explore.
Name-based background checks are the most common method for finding criminal history records because criminal records are filed by name, not by fingerprint. If there is a weakness to name-based checks, it is the risk of false positives or negatives.
False positives can occur in name-based checks when two individuals share a name. A criminal background check can return a record on a subject that pertains to a different individual. Fortunately, thanks to the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), there are protections in place to protect job seekers from being disqualified from employment consideration based on criminal history that isn’t theirs.
False negatives can occur if an individual has changed their name since being convicted of a crime. A criminal can feasibly avoid detection by standard name-based criminal checks by adopting an alias. Less malicious name changes—such as getting married and changing your name—can also cause false negatives for some name-based background checks.
At backgroundchecks.com, we take steps to improve the accuracy of our reports and eliminate as many false positives or negatives as possible. Date of birth is one piece of information that can reduce confusion for records pertaining to candidates with common names. Even more valuable, incorporating SSNs into our background checks allows us to find names and past addresses associated with the subject. This information can supplement the background check process to help us find any criminal records associated with an individual, regardless of their aliases or geography.
Because of crime dramas and Hollywood films, it’s a common misconception that fingerprinting is the best way to navigate criminal databases. In truth, fingerprints aren’t the key sorting mechanism for criminal records—in fact, some criminal records aren’t even filed with fingerprints included. As a result, fingerprint background checks can sometimes miss information that name-based checks would find easily.
The FBI uses the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), which spans more than 70 million records, and there are clear advantages to fingerprinting when a subject’s record has a fingerprint on file. Fingerprints, unlike names or birthdays, are unique to the individual. As a result, false positives are very rare. If a fingerprint background check matches an individual to a criminal record, it’s likely that the record is theirs. Read our blog post about what shows up on fingerprint background checks to learn more.
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.