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How Far Back Does a Background Check Go?

By Michael Klazema on 11/4/2020

Whether you are a hiring manager or a job seeker, you may wonder: how far back does a background check go? For an employer, knowing the answer can help you form a better understanding of how a person’s past—particularly their criminal record—impacts their job chances. For a job seeker with a criminal record, knowing how far back background checks go can impact employment factors ranging from disclosures to job chances.

There is not a simple answer regarding how far back a background check goes. No federal law limits how far into the past employers can look when conducting criminal history screenings. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), which defines and regulates many steps of the background check process for employers, is silent regarding criminal background check reach.

Under federal law, background checks can go as far back as there is information to report. However, laws do limit the scope of employee background checks.

Some states put a cap on the number of years back that a background check can look. Nine states restrict background check companies by allowing them only to report criminal convictions from the past seven years: California, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, and Washington. Nevada has a seven-year conviction reporting limit, but the law that made the limitation enforceable was repealed in 2015.

Some other states have seven-year rules, too, but they do not apply to criminal history. For instance, Texas has a seven-year rule on the books, but it only applies to credit reporting agencies running credit checks—not employers looking into the criminal backgrounds of their job applicants.

These seven-year rules are not absolute: employers in the affected states can look further back into a person’s criminal history if they are filling a position with a certain salary. In California, employee background checks can look back at the last 10 years of criminal history if the job will pay $125,000 or more. In Washington, an income exception to the seven-year rule starts at a $20,000 salary. The seven remaining states start their income exceptions at $25,000 in annual pay.

Even if employers can look back as far as they please into a candidate’s criminal past, that doesn’t mean older convictions should carry the same weight as newer ones. As part of its background check guidance, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) encourages employers to consider the length of time that has passed since a conviction and whether there have been any additional convictions since. For example, a 30-year-old assault conviction isn’t as relevant to a job as an assault conviction from three months ago.

Especially if a candidate has had a clean criminal record since, an old conviction typically does not indicate a relevant or current pattern of behavior. For that reason, employers should not use old convictions as an automatic barrier to employment. Some states maintain laws that limit the reach of background checks to ensure a fair chance for applicants.

At backgroundchecks.com, we follow all the laws and regulations in states where our clients do business. Employers with questions about how far back background checks can go can simply contact us and ask.


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