Background Screening 101


Whether you are an employer looking to devise an effective pre-employment background check policy for your candidates or a job seeker wondering what to expect from the background check process, it’s useful to know how criminal background checks work. We will answer many of the most frequently asked questions about background checks on this page.

What is a background check?

 When most people think of a background check, they think of a simple criminal history check. In truth, though, most background checks entail much more than that. 

Defined simply, a background check is the tool employers use to vet their candidates as thoroughly as possible. This process involves looking at criminal records, but it can also entail education and employment history, civil records, professional references, etc. A good background check shows a wide variety of information. Note that background checks can take several days to process, so planning and knowing what information you want to check is essential for ensuring a timely service.

Why is each of these types of information important? In the case of a criminal history check, learning about a person’s background may be vital to keeping your company, your employees, and your customers safe. Employment and education verifications help ensure that applicants have the skills and experience necessary to perform the job at hand. Some background checks can even verify whether applicants are truthful about their identity – and whether they are wanted internationally. 

Call these processes what you will: background screenings, background checks or pre-employment screenings. Regardless of the name, these tools are always there to help protect your company from the risk of a bad hire. Those risks can include bad press, negligent hiring lawsuits, and other liabilities. Most employers believe detailed background checks are worth the cost of admission to minimize these risks.

One important thing to note here is the importance of identifying information for background checks. Most criminal records are filed by name, which can be a stumbling block given how many people share common names. Knowing other details about a candidate – such as their birthdate, Social Security Number, or where they live – is vital to help make sure records belong to your applicant. These extra pieces of identifying information can also help background check providers pull records associated with a candidate’s aliases or prior names, including maiden names.

Do arrests show on background checks?

One of the most common questions about criminal background checks is whether reports will show arrest records. 

The answer depends on the state. Some states have laws prohibiting employers from asking about arrest records or using them for employment-related decisions. Since arrests themselves are not proof of guilt, they are unreliable and often unfair when used as a barrier to employment. 

At, we always exclude arrest history information from our background check reports to protect our customers from compliance issues. To learn whether your state legally allows the use of arrest records for hiring, read our white paper on the matter.

Do dismissed cases show on background checks?

Similar to arrests, dismissed cases are not proof of guilt. However, a dismissed case may appear on a candidate’s background check. An arrest that never led to a criminal charge is one thing, but a criminal charge stays on the person’s record even if the charges are dismissed, or the case ends in a not guilty verdict. 

Just because dismissed charges may show up on a background check doesn’t mean employers need to consider them. In most cases, employers recognize the difference between a formal conviction and a charge that ultimately didn’t go anywhere. To learn more about this subject, read our full post about dismissed cases and background checks.

Do expunged or sealed records show on background checks?

If a candidate has successfully petitioned to have their criminal records sealed or expunged, those convictions should no longer appear on a background check report. An expunged record is essentially scrubbed from existence, while a sealed record should only be accessible to law enforcement. 

Does your business have candidates whose criminal histories make hiring or providing specific benefits challenging? At, we designed a program called MyClearStart to help employers get information about expungement into the hands of their applicants.

Do traffic tickets show on criminal background checks?

In most cases, traffic tickets or other driving-related infractions will not be included in criminal background check reports. Most speeding tickets are considered civil infractions rather than misdemeanors or felonies, and civil infractions rarely show up on criminal history checks. 

That’s not to say that employers cannot find traffic citations with a background check. Motor vehicle record checks offer a way to find this information and are common for jobs that involve operating vehicles or heavy machinery. 

Of course, there are driving offenses considered misdemeanors or felonies, including reckless driving and driving under the influence of alcohol. These convictions will appear on a criminal background report. 

To learn more about what information may appear on a driving history check – from traffic tickets to license classification – visit our driving record background check product page.

How far back do background checks go?

How far back a criminal background check goes depends on the state. No federal law regulates the lookback period for criminal history checks. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) does have rules limiting the “adverse information” a credit bureau can report about a consumer. 

However, that part of the FCRA only applies to credit history checks. There is no corresponding rule for criminal history checks. 

Instead, most states decide on this matter on their own. Most commonly, criminal background checks are allowed to look back seven years.

What Are Verification Checks?

Criminal history searches are just one part of a thorough pre-employment background check process. In addition to looking at criminal records, most employers take time to verify the information their candidates provide on resumes and job applications. 

Lies, half-truths, or embellishments are unfortunately common in today’s job market. Because a criminal background check doesn’t reveal anything about a person’s past employment or education. It ultimately isn’t an effective tool to help employers flag lies about work history or college degrees. 

These details must instead be checked using verification checks. There are a few different types of verifications available from, including employment history, education, professional licensing or certification, and reference checks.

How do employment history checks work?

An employment verification check is mostly meant to check the validity of the work history information a candidate provides on their resume. It’s not uncommon for job applicants to embellish their work history to make it look more impressive to a prospective employer. That might mean tweaking a job title, changing a start or end date, or listing job responsibilities outside the scope of the position. Employment verification checks involve contacting previous employers—usually HR staff—and verifying the accuracy of these key information points.

On the subject of employment history checks, one common question is what employers can or cannot say about a previous employee. If you are an employer, you may be wondering what you can ask a former employer about a job candidate or what you are allowed to say if an employer contacts you about a past employee. 

Contrary to popular belief, no federal law restricts what employers can disclose about past employees. For instance, if the candidate you are screening was fired from a previous job, the employer can share that detail and explain the reasoning behind the decision.

However, just because there is no federal law on the subject doesn’t mean employers are always open to discussing anything and everything about their ex-employees. Most employers tread carefully here for fear of defamation lawsuits. 

As a result, employers don’t typically want to comment too much on things that might be deemed subjective – such as the character or work ethic of past employees. Especially if the employer doesn’t have anything nice to say about their ex-worker, they don’t want to put themselves in a situation where they could feasibly be taken to court for slandering that person. 

So, instead of asking questions that focus on an employer’s opinions about a past employee, most employment verification checks focus on objective and easily verifiable details. These details include verifiable employment dates, job titles, duties or responsibilities, and salary information.

How do reference checks work?

In most cases, job seekers have a list of 2-3 professional references that they submit alongside their resume, cover letter, and job application. These references, theoretically, are people who are willing to speak favorably about the job seeker’s skills, abilities, work habits, and more. However, since job seekers ask references to speak on their behalf, reference checks can touch upon subjective topics that work history verifications usually cannot, including personality, character, and work ethic. 

Read on to find out how we can check your candidate's references.

What shows on a civil history check?

A civil history background check is an entirely different matter than a criminal background check. Where criminal cases are brought to court by the state, civil cases are brought instead by the alleged victim. For instance, if someone sues their neighbor over a property damage claim, that case becomes part of the civil court history for both the plaintiff and the defendant. A civil background check would therefore turn up information about that case.

Note that there are two types of civil history background checks: county and federal. To understand what shows on these different civil history records, read our blog post on the matter.

What do education history checks show?

Similar to employment history, education history is a resume detail that employers may want to verify about their candidates. Education verification can be crucial for pre-hiring due diligence, especially in academia or in jobs requiring specific degrees or credentials. You can check our product page for education history checks to learn more about how they work and why they are important in the background check process.

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