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What it means to Fail a Background Check

By Michael Klazema on 1/28/2020

What Happens If You Fail a Background Check?

How do you pass background checks? What happens if you fail a background check? These two queries are among the most frequently asked questions about background checks. Unfortunately, they are also among the most difficult to answer in a concrete and satisfactory way. 

The challenge lies in the fact that there is no one agreed-upon definition for passing a background check. What might be acceptable to one employer will not be acceptable to another. What might be fine for one job might be a deal-breaker for a different position. These differences bring complexity to any conversation about background checks. 

Generally, failing a background check means that your background falls short of an employer’s standards. That might mean you have a criminal conviction in your past that calls into question your ability to perform the responsibilities of the job. For instance, if you have two DUIs on your record, you will fail the background check for any job that involves operating a vehicle. You may also fail a background check if your employer runs work or education verification background checks and finds out that you lied on your resume. In either of these contexts, failing the background check would likely disqualify you from job consideration. 

It is a relatively common belief that someone has failed a background screening if the background check report shows a criminal conviction. This way of looking at things is an oversimplification because it doesn’t consider the employer’s decision-making process. 

There are convictions that require an employer to disqualify a job candidate. Schools, for example, are not allowed to hire registered sex offenders. For less severe crimes, things aren’t so simple. Say someone with petty theft and drug convictions on their record applies for a job. When the employer runs a background check, these convictions show up on the report. However, the employer ultimately may decide that the convictions are not relevant to the position at hand and hire the person, anyway. In this case, the candidate has passed the background check even though they do not have a clean criminal record. 

It’s less constructive for job seekers to ask, “What happens if you fail a background checks?” or “How can I pass background checks?” than it is for them to think critically about their own backgrounds. 

If you have criminal convictions on your record, think about how employers may see those pieces of your history. Are there certain jobs that you are less likely to compete for than others, given your specific criminal record? Assessing your own background can help you be more strategic about the jobs that you pursue.


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