Let’s get right to the facts about this one.
You should expect an employment background check on the path to your next job. Conservative estimates show nearly three quarters of all employers perform some sort of background check on every new hire. While mandated by law in some cases, clearing a background check is a necessary condition for the great majority of new hires. The number one concern for employers is workplace safety.
For precisely that reason, employment background checks include multiple dimensions and draw from several sources of information. Employers use background checks to determine the risk a candidate represents regarding occupational safety, criminal behavior (e.g., theft, violence, bribery), and creating hostile working conditions.
The specifics of what an employment background check includes differ according to the role, organization, or industry. Almost one half of candidates say they are unsure of what employers are investigating during an employment background check. Between 30 and 50 percent include reviewing a candidate’s credit history.
Though estimates vary, at least nine percent (.pdf) of all employment background checks reveal derogatory information about a candidate. Our research shows that one-third of all jobseekers are concerned that information in their background will interfere with getting hired.
Yet for many good candidates, an instance of background blight on its own is not enough to disqualify. But it does involve an additional set of conversations between the candidate and employer to determine whether past mistakes are relevant to the current job and future performance.
Some basics of employment background checks
Employment background checks are often conducted by third-party vendors. Therefore, jobseekers should become aware of their rights under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), which governs such transactions.
As mentioned earlier, background checks investigate several areas of a candidate’s history. Because workplace safety is paramount, nearly every candidate is investigated for criminal history. For most candidates, a background check will also include confirming identity, employment history, education, and professional credentials.
For some roles, ongoing illegal drug use is a focus, and may require a pre-employment drug test. Other roles will look at DMV records and driving history. Less common are medical history and Workers’ Compensation claims.
Some candidates can expect more rigorous background checks. Positions of high trust will necessitate additional scrutiny, especially handling valuable assets or offsite work on another’s property. The same applies to positions that involve driving, operating tools or machinery, or handling hazardous materials.
Senior managers, especially those with fiduciary responsibilities, can expect scrutiny of their financial history, as can anyone in a position to bribe or be bribed. And candidates being hired for roles that expose them to confidential or secure information, including trade secrets and intellectual property assets, will also be investigated thoroughly.
The three things to sweat
- What you say about yourself not matching what the employer finds in your background check report
One rule of thumb for clearing a background check is whether “candidates are who they say they are.” Employers can make a case for hiring a candidate who has been upfront about a prior lapse of judgment. But employers cannot do so with candidates found having a current lapse of judgment in representing themselves truthfully. The most common areas that candidates falsify are education, professional credentials, and employment history. When discovered, it is an immediate deal breaker, even if you’re the CEO.
If in doubt, contact the applicable keeper of records. It is very easy for employers to do, and likewise for job candidates wanting to verify their past accomplishments.
- False, inaccurate, or misleading information appearing in your background check
As much as you’ve been truthful about yourself, you can’t necessarily expect the system to vouch for you. Background checks can and do contain wrong information, which can cost jobseekers dearly.
Data brokering is a sketchy and unregulated business, operating in a legal grey area and increasingly outside of U.S. jurisdiction. Even post-GDPR, custodians of your background data have neither the resources nor the incentives to maintain its integrity. That includes reporting bureaus with whom employers contract for background checks, and especially the sources from which they scrape your background data.
It is a good idea for all jobseekers to do as much detective work on themselves as possible. Start by ordering a free credit report. Always request a copy of an employer background check report if your state allows it. Do what you can to obtain DMV and court records, along with any prior background check reports. Consider using a paid service if any doubts linger.
- Derogatory background information bringing about the end of the conversation
If your background contains a criminal conviction, it does not necessarily mean an automatic disqualification.
Most employers treat discovery of derogatory background information on a case-by-case basis. As a rule, it is handled very conscientiously and discreetly, and only among need-to-know persons, typically the recruiter or an HR representative and the legal department. Together they review the facts and determine how best to proceed to ensure fairness and regulatory compliance, yet maintain workplace safety.
When should a candidate with derogatory background information discuss it with an employer?
Experts advise one of two courses. If it relates to something fundamental about performing the job (e.g., a candidate for a driving job having a DUI conviction), then it needs to be discussed early in the process. That allows both the candidate and the recruiter to determine whether there is a workaround. If on the other hand, it is not directly relevant to performing the job, then it should be brought up later, at the point when it is clear to the candidate that a job offer is probable.
In either case, the candidate needs to demonstrate that as an exit of the criminal justice system, the past has been resolved, present obligations are being satisfied, and the future represents no greater risk to the employer than any other candidate. It also provides the candidate with a unique opportunity to apply the tried and true CAR technique to demonstrate his or her value, in an extraordinarily vivid and impressive way.
The bottom line
Background checks are often complicated. Employers must follow numerous regulations and procedures, which are subject to frequent change. Therefore, employers are typically advised against having a blanket background check policy.
For jobseekers, it is worthwhile to find out what employers see. Anything you can do to make things easier for the employer is mutually beneficial. Show that you are low risk, and use your experiences to demonstrate your value just like any other top candidate. And always be truthful, no matter what’s in your background.
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