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How to Pass a Criminal Background Check (Best Practices)

By Michael Klazema on 4/6/2018

Can you beat a criminal background check? The question has been asked time and time again, both by people with criminal histories and people whose records are as clean as a whistle. Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple answer. Background checks are complex and can yield many results. Contrary to popular belief, background checks aren’t something you either pass or fail. Instead, employers who use these checks take a variety of factors into consideration before making any hiring decision based on background check data.

What to Expect from a Background Check

According to CareerBuilder, 72% of employers run background checks on every new employee. Employers use these checks as a form of due diligence, to learn more about potential hires and spot red flags. Businesses don’t want to hire people who pose a risk to their customers, employees, brands, or the public. Criminal histories are one way to minimize these risks.

However, not all criminal history checks are the same. There is no central hub of criminal records that employers can search before hiring someone. Instead, criminal history information is spread out across many databases and locations. Much of this information is filed away at county courts where most crimes are prosecuted. Some of it can be found by searching state repositories or multi-jurisdictional databases, but there are holes and blind spots in these databases.

In other words, background checks aren’t infallible. Depending on the checks an employer uses, there is a chance those checks will come back clean even if the candidate has a criminal record. This candidate would then have technically “beaten” the background check, but that’s frequently not the end of the story.

Best Practices for Passing a Background Check

Whether you have a criminal history or not, you shouldn’t rely on luck to get you through the screening process. More and more employers are getting stringent about their background check policies. They are fleshing out their criminal checks to avoid blind spots, or adding supplementary checks (education and employment verifications, address history checks, etc.) to get smarter about hiring.

If you want to beat a background check, following these best practices are your best bet.

  • Don’t lie about your name: Many background checks are name-based—though some employers use fingerprint or Social Security Number checks for more precise results. Because of this setup, some ex-offenders assume that they can beat background checks by adopting fake names. This idea works in theory, but it falls apart when employers use alias searches, which many do. Even employers that don’t use a formal alias background check often Google candidates online before or after the first interview. If nothing turns up, it can arouse suspicion.
  • Get your story straight: If you have a criminal record, you should always assume that employers are going to find out about it. Your best bet to beat that background check isn’t to lie, but to tell the truth. If ban the box policies are enforced where you live, know that this kind of law restricts employers from asking about criminal history on the job application. It also often delays the background check until late in the screening process. The idea behind this policy is to give candidates with criminal histories the chance to prove their skills and qualifications without their past mistakes overshadowing their potential. If ban the box is in your favor, put your best foot forward so employers don’t give your criminal record too much weight when they find out about it. If ban the box isn’t on your side, you will likely have to disclose your criminal past on the job application. Your best bet in this scenario is to be honest and transparent. Explain to the employer what happened and what you’ve done since to atone for it. You have the chance to control the narrative—take it.
     
  • Run a background check on yourself: If you don’t have a criminal record, that doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. A background check could still flag a criminal offense or two. The background check company might pull the wrong file, bringing up results for someone who shares your name but not your innocence. Or someone at the local courthouse could have misfiled something under your name. Either way, you need to be prepared for the possibility you might not beat the background check, even if by all accounts you should. The best way to prepare for this unlikely (but possible) outcome is to run a background check on yourself. There are plenty of places online where you can order a self-check. This precautionary step will let you see what your record will look like to employers and fix any inaccuracies before they cause trouble.
     
  • Consider expungement: Sometimes, all the honesty in the world only does you so much good. The truth is that it is often very difficult for people with criminal records to get jobs. Ban the box legislation is designed to help, and some employers are willing to give ex-offenders second chances. If you have a record and have repeatedly tried to find gainful employment with no success, it might be a smart idea to consider expungement. States have different rules regarding expungement. Depending on the crime for which you were convicted, the amount of time that has passed since the offense, and the remainder of your record (e.g., no repeat offenses or other crimes since), you might qualify for expungement. Once a crime has been expunged, it should stop showing up on background checks and cannot be used against you in employment situations.

If you have a criminal record and are trying to move on with your life, background checks can be an incredibly frustrating barrier to entry for jobs. By adhering to the best practices above, you will be able to maximize your chances of beating a background check and finding a great job.


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