What is the Definition of a Background Check?

Background checks are a common tool used in many places, particularly by employers looking to hire new people to work in a business. The media often features reports that mention whether a company performed a background check on an individual later accused of wrongdoing, and background checks factor into many important debates in society today. What does it really mean when we talk about "background checks" today? 

Defining the Background Check

At its most basic, a background check is any process that involves consulting records or speaking to references to understand facts about an individual's past. An employment background check is the most common form of this process, and the one most people will encounter at some point in their lifetime. Because employers need to protect their assets and customers, they need background checks to understand the level of risk an individual may pose.

Other occasions may require background checks, such as when volunteering to work at a school—or even trying to meet a match on a dating site. Generally, though, they are a tool for understanding the past based on legally available records.

Who Administers Background Checks?

That depends. Most commonly, professional third-party providers offer the services that organizations need to carry out their vetting. These services collect the different types of background checks under one roof while also making it simpler to run broader, more comprehensive criminal background checks. Because there is no single national criminal records database, employers and others need to rely on a system that aggregates the most recent information.

Only state police or specific state organizations can perform background checks for employers in some states and jurisdictions. There are also fingerprint-based background checks, typically administered by the FBI, which consult databases of federal crimes. Anyone using background checks must follow specified rules and guidelines to protect fairness and privacy while discouraging discrimination. For example, an employer can't run a background check on an applicant without consent.

The Different Kinds of Background Checks

"Background check" as a term falls under a broad umbrella, and many kinds of searches might fall under it. Someone may use one or all of them when vetting an individual. Some of the major types of checks include:

  • Criminal background checks determine if an individual has prior convictions, pending charges, or other notable concerns related to law enforcement.
  • Educational history verification ensures an individual has the proper educational credentials and is truthful in their representation on an application.
  • Motor vehicle history reports to understand if someone has a history of dangerous driving or to see if their record is clean and safe.
  • License verification, to know whether a professional has the credentials and experience they claim or not.
  • Credit reports evaluate financial risks and motivations for hiring into finance, renting housing, and other purposes.

Learn all about these background checks, what appears on them, and more when you visit our knowledge center or explore how to order a background check today.

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