What is a Background Check for a Job?

By Michael Klazema on 11/12/2014

So you've submitted your resume and application, aced the phone and in-person interviews, and think you're a shoe-in for your dream job. There's just one step left in the employee screening process, though, and it's a big one: the background check.

If you forgot about the background check during your interview preparation, rest assured that you aren't alone. There are entire courses out there dedicated to writing the perfect resume or honing interview skills, but many applicants simply don't consider the background check in the same light. And often, this kind of forgetfulness happens because people don't know what a background check actually entails, why it is necessary for employers, and why it can completely alter someone's chances of landing a job. Read on for answers to these questions.

What is a background check?

The term "background check" seems pretty self-explanatory from the outset. In the simplest terms, a background check is what your employers use to look into your past to make sure you aren't hiding anything. Usually, in employment circles at least, a "background check" is synonymous with a "criminal history screening." First and foremost, most employers are anxious to know if you've ever committed any crimes, and more importantly, if your criminal history makes you an unfit candidate for the job at hand.

The thing is, many background checks can entail more than just criminal history. Depending on the position you are applying for, an employer may look at any number of things from your past. These include (but are not necessary limited to) the following

  • driving history
  • Sex offender registry searches
  • Verifications such as educational background
  • Civil court searches
  • Bankruptcy checks
  • Alias and address searches
  • Reference checks
  • Drug screening

You can sometimes guess at the types of checks an employer will run on you based on the job for which you are applying. For instance, if you are looking into a position that involves operating a motor vehicle, you can bet that your driving history is going to be a part of the conversation. Similarly, jobs involving the handling of finances will include credit history checks and bankruptcy reports. With all of this said, though, you should be prepared for your background check to entail any and all of the elements listed above.

Why do employers run background checks?

Now that we understand precisely what background checks can entail for job, the next question becomes why employers run them at all. The answer to that question is all about safety and liability. Employers run background checks, first and foremost, to provide another layer of protection: for themselves, for their assets, for their employees, and for their customers. For example, hiring a convicted embezzler is a threat to an employer's monetary assets, while hiring a convicted sex offender or violent criminal puts the employer's workers or customers directly in the line of harm. Background checks help to flag such past offenses and prevent hires that would risk repeat offenses on the employer's watch.

Businesses also run background checks because they don't want to be held liable for an employee's misdeeds. If an employer hires someone with two DUIs to a position that involves driving, and that person gets in an alcohol-influenced vehicular accident while on the job, the employer could be sued or held criminally liable for the irresponsible hiring of a drunk driver. In short, it was the employer's responsibility to make sure the person they hired was fit for the job at hand (this is also known as "due diligence"). If the employer failed to run a background check, they failed to uphold that responsibility, and should be held liable for whatever accident took place.

When employers do run background checks on their applicants, they give themselves a firewall of defense against individuals who would commit crimes on the job or otherwise tarnish their company's reputation.

How can a background check change your job chances?

 So how can a background check completely change your chances at landing a dream job? In a number of ways, actually. First and foremost, if you have a criminal record, the way employers look at you is going to be fundamentally changed. There are certain jobs that you cannot get if you have convictions for violent crimes, sexual offenses, or drug crimes on your record—among other things. Therefore, if you do have this kind of charge on your record, and it comes up on your background check, that will obviously diminish or kill any chances you had of landing a job.

With that said, a background check can alter your chances of getting a job even if you have never been convicted of crime. For instance, if you have a common name, a background check into your past may uncover the criminal record of someone who shares your name. Or someone else's criminal information could have accidentally been logged into your record by a careless police officer. Similarly, if you've been the victim of identity theft, that fact could change the way various parts of your record look—from your driving history to your credit history. These are just a few of the ways in which your background check can cost you a job—even if the information is not actually an accurate representation of your own history.

So how can you avoid paying for the mistakes and sins of others? Use a reliable service like to run a background check on yourself prior to your job interview. Doing so will allow you to assess the validity of the information found by these checks, and more importantly, get everything straightened out before your prospective employer reviews the same background check report.

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