What Shows Up on a Background Check, and What Do Employers Look For?

What does a background check show? The answer is complex due to many factors – different types of record searches report on diverse aspects. However, most employer background checks show the following: criminal records, driving records, civil court records, credit history, work history, and education.

Every employer takes a slightly different approach to background screenings. For instance, Amazon.com’s policies are likely different from those of a small-town local restaurant. Contrary to common belief, there is no single approach to this process. For example, a background check with employment verification differs from a strictly criminal background search.

Read on to understand different types of background checks and what they can show.

Pre-Employment Background Checks: What They Can Reveal


A pre-employment background check helps the employer vet a job applicant to ensure they are a sound and appropriate hire. It involves considering varied information—from crime records to resume verifications—to get a holistic impression of the candidate. The following is a comprehensive list of what comes up on a background check for employment:

1. Criminal Records

Criminal background checks are the most commonly used service for pre-employment screening—this type of check searches criminal record databases for evidence of past convictions. If you have a criminal record, it will show up on a background check and may influence your employer’s hiring decisions. Companies may retrieve records using one or all of the following methods:

  • County court searches. Since most criminal cases are tried and filed at the county level, the starting point for most employers is to search within the county where their business operates. Some companies widen the scope by running address history searches on their candidates. County criminal background checks follow this search in each locale the candidate has recently called home.
  • State criminal searches. County courts often report to state data repositories offering a broader geographical scope for criminal background screening. Searching for records in an entire state lets you quickly cover more ground.
  • Federal criminal searches. These checks find records of federal crimes from the US District Courts. Since the federal government prosecutes these crimes, they won’t report them at the state level. Accessing these records may require an FBI fingerprint background check.
  • Multi-jurisdictional criminal searches. These searches draw from large databases of criminal information. While there is no central database of records in the United States, some companies—including backgroundchecks.com—maintain proprietary databases with records spanning many jurisdictions. Our US OneSEARCH tool allows employers to instantly search more than half a billion criminal records from all 50 states and US territories.

2. Employment History

A criminal background check won’t reveal anything about a person’s past employment or education. Therefore, employers often include verification checks in the hiring process. There is no central database of everyone’s history, so how do employment verifications work?

The answer is to contact each previous employer and ask about the job candidate. backgroundchecks.com offers a comprehensive employment verification service, including reference checks for employment history, education, and professional licensing. Here’s what shows up in an employment verification check:

  • Job title
  • Service length
  • Work duties

Asking about a candidate’s salary history is illegal in more than half of the United States, so you can’t verify salary through background checks.

Employers also don’t typically comment on someone’s character or work ethic. However, there are no federal restrictions on what employers can and can’t disclose about past employees. For instance, if a company fired a candidate from a previous job, an HR manager can choose to disclose that information and explain the reason behind the decision.

3. Education

An education history check determines if a candidate attended the university they claim on their resume. Further, such assessments can reveal whether the individual graduated, which degree they earned, and their dates of attendance. Statistics show that most applicants exaggerate their skills and abilities on their resumes, and many employers encounter problems with falsified educational records. Checking before you agree to hire someone is an excellent way to avoid those problems.

Here’s what typically shows up on an education verification/background check:

  • Dates of attendance
  • Enrolment confirmation
  • Graduation year
  • Courses completed and degrees earned

Education verifications do not report an applicant’s GPA. Most employers do not consider this information relevant in the workplace. Still, they may request it for selected roles.

4. Civil Records

Lawsuits, contract disputes, and other legal disagreements won’t appear in criminal searches. Employers must run a civil history background check to find this information. While a criminal background check searches for convictions, civil court cases are public record. Alleged victims of wrongdoing bring the cases to court.

Civil history checks can prove very useful, particularly when hiring for advanced positions in management or the C-suite and jobs involving significant financial responsibilities. For instance, someone with a history of lawsuits against them for violating federal regulations may not be a safe choice for a sensitive leadership role.

There are two types of background checks for civil history: county and federal.

  • County civil courts process any civil case that pertains to local or state law. Cases can include contractual disputes, housing evictions, personal injury claims, consumer rights matters, restraining orders, etc. The list of possible civil claims is extensive. Civil court records can also include family law cases, such as divorces, child support issues, and estate disposals.
  • Federal civil records searches contain information about cases heard in a US District Court. Federal court districts will typically only hear civil cases when the US government is involved as a party or the civil dispute involves residents of different states. If a person has sued the government alleging a violation of constitutional rights, it will appear on a federal civil records check. Tax disputes also proceed via the federal court level.

5. Driving history

When hiring for a position that involves frequent driving, employers will often consider a candidate’s driving history before offering them the position. Companies regulated by the Department of Transportation must do driving record checks by law. These checks reveal suspensions, traffic violations, and fines associated with an applicant’s driver’s license. Speeding tickets, moving violations, reckless driving charges and other infractions are all reflected on a driving record report.

It also shows details about the license classification and endorsements. The license requirements for a pizza delivery driver are different from those for a truck driver operating heavy freight vehicles. A driving record check will tell an employer which type of license their candidate has and whether they can operate the vehicle relevant to the job.

6. Identity verification

Identity verification uses a person’s Social Security Number to find names and aliases associated with that SSN over the years. They can help employers spot identity theft or flag someone who uses aliases to beat criminal background checks. Conducting a background check with identity verification will pull up criminal records for all the applicant’s previous names. No matter the reason for a name change, an SSN check can find it.

7. Credit history

Sometimes, employers will include credit history reports as part of the pre-employment vetting. This practice is most common for jobs in banking and finance. Credit history reports tell employers more about a person’s money management habits and overall financial responsibility. An employer hiring for a financial management job might have reservations about choosing a candidate whose personal credit history shows many missed payments or a high debt load.

Credit record reports use a person’s name, date of birth, and Social Security Number to determine their credit history. Contrary to popular belief, these are not the same as the credit checks banks use to decide whether to approve an applicant for a loan. Credit history background checks allow employers to discover specific details about a candidate’s credit.

Elements that may show up in a credit report include:

  • Credit limits
  • Average monthly payments
  • Current balances on credit cards and lines of credit
  • Percentage of available credit
  • Accounts that are past due (and the past due amounts on those accounts)
  • Information related to bankruptcies and tax liens.

While credit record searches are vital for some employers, critics have promoted reducing their use for general employment. They argue that credit scores should not impact people’s ability to find gainful employment.

There have been legislative movements in parts of the country to ban or restrict credit record reports for hiring. Eleven states currently have legislation for this: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington. Some cities, including Washington, DC, New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia also have restrictions.

Other types of background checks

Employers may use other background checks to review a job applicant’s personal or professional history before offering them a job. What employers look for often depends on the type of job. For example, working in child care may require more extensive character checks. Other types of background screenings include:

What comes up on a background check? Drug tests will show whether you’ve used controlled substances within the last few days – the timeframe differs depending on the drug. Child abuse and sex registry checks verify whether your name appears on national and state lists of offenders. We discuss what shows up on fingerprint and security clearance checks below.

What does a fingerprint background check show?

It is a misconception that background checks via fingerprints are more in-depth or accurate than name-based checks. Fingerprinting is merely a different way of matching a person to a criminal record. Therefore, they show the same information as any other criminal background check.

Police may fingerprint suspects following an arrest. If a criminal file includes the data, a fingerprint background search will match that file. However, the process has limitations because fingerprinting is not a universal practice and not all crime records include fingerprint information.

Incorporating fingerprints into the pre-employment vetting process does not guarantee that the report will be more accurate than searching based on the person’s name, birth date, Social Security Number and other personal information.

What does an FBI background check show?

What does a background check show when run through an FBI database? Usually, FBI background checks use the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) to retrieve information about a candidate’s past.

IAFIS is the hub of the FBI’s background screening process. It is a fingerprint database that includes more than 70 million records. Anyone with a criminal record or who has legally purchased a firearm or sought a job requiring fingerprinting will be in the IAFIS. It includes many positions in government, education, and healthcare.

These background checks show your complete personal and criminal history, including arrests, traffic violations, convictions, fines, lawsuits, and credit records. Not all employers have access to IAFIS. For instance, public schools can run FBI fingerprint checks, but the average retail store cannot. FBI background screenings are not relevant to most employers, particularly private companies.

What does a Level 2 background check show?

The phrase “Level 2 background check” has different meanings depending on the background check service provider and location. In Florida, background investigations fall into Level 1 and Level 2 categories. A Level 1 check is the less in-depth background screening, while Level 2 is the more detailed option.

Level 1 checks in Florida include state-only crime records searches, verifications of past employment, sex offender registry checks, and additional criminal searches at the county level. Level 2 checks add fingerprint-based checks of Florida Department of Law Enforcement records and national FBI databases.

Some employers may use levels to categorize their background check processes, with level 1 being a light county screening and level 2 or even level 3 including more information. Always check with your hiring manager about what their pre-employment background checks entail.

Red Flags on Background Checks

Often, employment depends on what shows up on your background check. Employers may decide against hiring a job candidate due to “red flags” in their personal or professional past. These findings may threaten workplace safety policies, putting employees, customers, or the business at risk. So, what causes a red flag on a background check?

  • A criminal record that contains multiple misdemeanors and/or felonies
  • False or unverifiable information on resumes
  • Large gaps in employment
  • Bad references
  • Drug-related convictions
  • Failed drug tests
  • Refusal to submit to a background check

Just because you have a criminal record or rocky employment history does not mean you can’t find a job. Employers consider different aspects red flags, and what matters to some won’t matter to all. Read our free white paper for more information about background check red flags.


What background check do most employers use?

Most employers will run a criminal history check before hiring a new employee in the US. Many different background check companies offer these services, including backgroundchecks.com. The most popular types of background checks employers use are:

  1. Criminal background checks (local, state, and federal)
  2. Employment history/reference checks
  3. Driving record checks
  4. Drug tests or screenings
Do arrests show on background checks?

The answer to this question depends on the state. Some state laws prohibit employers from asking about or using arrest records for employment-related decisions. Since arrests are not proof of guilt, relying on them as a barrier to employment is often unfair.

At backgroundchecks.com, 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 this white paper.

Do dismissed cases show on background checks?

Dismissed cases may sometimes show up on a candidate’s background check report. A dismissed criminal charge remains on the individual’s record even if the charges are dismissed or the case ends in a “not guilty” verdict.

With these facts in mind, employers should recognize the difference between a formal conviction and a dropped charge. A conviction offers substantiation of guilt, while a dismissed charge shows that a person was accused or suspected of a crime but never proven guilty. They may never have even made it into court.

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.

A sealed record still exists but is typically only accessible by law enforcement agencies. Expunged records are effectively invisible on a person’s background check. If someone had one conviction on their record and had it expunged, they could accurately answer “No” to the question, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”

Job seekers whose criminal histories make it harder to find employment can explore having their records sealed or expunged. At backgroundchecks.com, we’ve 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?

No. Usually, an employer performing background checks must run a motor vehicle records check to determine a candidate’s driving history.

Traffic tickets do not show up on criminal checks. These tickets are civil citations, meaning they are not misdemeanors or felonies. However, some driving transgressions are misdemeanors or felonies. Such offenses can include reckless driving or driving under the influence of alcohol. These are criminal convictions, and thus, they will appear on a criminal background report.

How far back do criminal history checks go?

backgroundchecks.com has the #1 criminal conviction records database in the industry, based on a comparison of the number of sources of conviction data for online criminal conviction databases that make their source list publicly available.

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Michael Klazema

About Michael Klazema The author

Michael Klazema is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based backgroundchecks.com with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments

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