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What to Expect from a Background Check: Your Complete Guide

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If you’ve ever applied for a job, then the odds are good that you’ve had to submit to a background screening. They help prospective employers make sure that you don’t have any criminal convictions and that you are who you say you are.
But despite how common they are, background checks remain shrouded in mystery for many people. That’s why we created this guide, which aims to demystify the background check process.
Whether you’re getting a background check for a new gig or just for your next full-time job, here are answers to all your background check questions.

What Is a Background Check?

When people think of background checks, they generally imagine a criminal background check. Criminal background checks investigate criminal records and other public records to assess a person’s criminal history and help a prospective employer decide if the applicant has committed a crime that would disqualify them from performing a job.
While this is one of the most common types of background checks, it’s far from the only one. In addition to criminal background checks, employers will sometimes run the following checks:

  • Driving records check — You’ll sometimes see this referred to as a DMV or motor vehicle records check. This check looks at an applicant’s driving history to check for crimes such as reckless driving, excessive speeding tickets, or other unsafe behavior. This type of check is especially common for gigs such as driving for Uber and Lyft.
  • Employment verification — This check allows an employer to verify your prior employment history. It helps ensure that you are qualified to do the job you’re applying for, and it will often involve contacting previous employers.
  • Education verification — If a job has particular education requirements, an employer can run this check to make sure you received the education that your resume claims. Usually, this will involve contacting the records department at any educational institutions you attended.
  • References check — If a job asks you to provide references, then a reference check is just the process of your employer (or a third party they hire) contacting the references you provided and asking them questions to help determine if the applicant is a good fit.
  • Credit check — Some employers will pull a credit report showing how much credit you have available and any of your outstanding debts. These are oftentimes done with services like Credit Sesame or Credit Karma. It’s less common for employers to check this record, but it can sometimes be relevant to jobs that involve handling money or dealing in secure information.

As you can see, background checks go beyond just checking someone’s criminal history (though that does remain a key reason for performing background checks). So how exactly do background checks work? Let’s take a closer look.

How a Typical Background Check Works

What to expect from a background check
When discussing how background checks work, the first thing to understand is that different states have different laws regarding what a potential employer can and cannot investigate when making a hiring decision. Therefore, the specifics of your background check process will vary depending on state laws.
In general, however, background checks involve three steps:

1. Submit the Required Information and Authorization

To start the background check process, your prospective employer will need to get the following information:

  • Your consent
  • Any necessary personal information

Starting with consent, the law requires all employers to get permission from a job applicant before conducting a background check. You’ll generally provide this consent by signing a form (though some online applications may just require you to check a box).
Along with your consent, your prospective employer will need certain personal information to initiate the background check. Generally, this will be your date of birth and Social Security number.
Given the sensitive nature of this information, you should always make sure the job you’re applying for is legitimate (and not an identity theft scam).

2. Wait While Your Employer Completes the Check

The next step is to wait. Your prospective employer will now work with third-party identity verification agencies and state agencies in order to check whatever information they need.
Here are the records that are relevant to each type of background check:

  • Criminal background check — This will involve checking court records, state law enforcement records, FBI records, sex offender registries, and any other relevant information.
  • Employment verification check — This will involve contacting previous employers to verify job titles, duties, and dates of employment.
  • Education verification check — This involves checking with the records department of the college (or other institution) that you attended in order to verify that you graduated from the institution and received the degree or certification you claimed.
  • References check — This usually involves an email or phone call to the people you’ve listed as references. The person contacting them will ask about your job competence, character, and any other information that is relevant and legal to ask about.
  • Driving record check — This involves a check of state DMV records to make sure that you haven’t committed any disqualifying offenses (parking tickets or minor citations usually won’t matter).
  • Credit history check — The company will contact consumer reporting agencies in order to get a snapshot of your credit history. Note that they won’t be able to see your credit score or any personally identifying financial information. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) prohibits credit bureaus from displaying personally identifying financial information to employers conducting credit checks.

3. Receive the Results

Once the check is complete, your employer will make a decision. Note that, if a prospective employer decides not to hire you because of something that your background check revealed, they are legally required to inform you of the following:

  • Name, address, and phone number of the company that supplied the background check information
  • Your right to dispute the accuracy and completeness of any information in the background check report
  • Your right to obtain an additional free background check report from the company that supplied it (if you ask within 60 days of your prospective employer’s decision not to hire you)

The above help make sure you can take steps to correct anything inaccurate or incomplete in your background check.

How Long Does a Background Check Take?

Man adjusting his suit sleeve
One of the most common questions people have when getting a background check is, “How long will this take?” The answer to this question depends on how detailed the background check is.
A simple pre-employment background check that looks at the job applicant’s criminal history could take as little as a few minutes. On the other hand, a more detailed check that involves employment verification, reference checks, DMV checks, education verification, and credit checks could have a turnaround time of several business days.
The important thing to understand is that much of the background check process is outside of your employer’s control. Contacting former employers can be especially time-consuming, as well as any kind of checks that go beyond consulting digital records.
So if your check is taking longer than you expected, don’t worry. In all likelihood, the delay is due to the amount of time it’s taking to check particular information (and not due to some unknown criminal conviction).

Background Check FAQ

Two women sitting at conference table
To conclude this guide, here are answers to some common questions about background checks:
1. What information are employers not allowed to check?
Many states prohibit employers from checking credit reports unless they can prove the information is directly relevant to the job. Employers aren’t allowed to check medical records, either, though they are allowed to require a physical examination if it’s relevant to the job.
Ultimately, what employers are and aren’t allowed to examine in a background check comes down to state law. Therefore, you should always check your local laws to make sure that your prospective employer is in compliance.
2. How far back do background checks go?
Once again, this depends on state laws. Some states don’t allow employers to look back further than seven years, while others place no restriction on how far back a background check can go.
That being said, the FCRA does place limits on the reporting of the following information:

  • Tax liens — Can’t be reported more than 7 years after payment
  • Bankruptcies — Can’t be reported more than 10 years after settlement
  • Collections accounts — Can’t be reported after 7 years
  • Civil judgments and civil suits — Can’t be reported after 7 years

3. Should I tell my employer about my criminal history?
Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to be upfront about any negative information that might come up in a background check. Your prospective employer would rather you be honest, and they’re going to find out anyway if the information will show up during the background check.
That being said, there are laws that protect applicants from discrimination related to their criminal history. Title VII “prohibits employers from treating people with similar criminal records differently because of their race, national origin, or another Title VII-protected characteristic (which includes color, sex, and religion).”
Furthermore, Title VII “prohibits employers from using policies or practices that screen individuals based on criminal history information if: They significantly disadvantage Title VII-protected individuals such as African Americans and Hispanics; AND They do not help the employer accurately decide if the person is likely to be a responsible, reliable, or safe employee.”
For more information on the above, visit the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website.

Background Checks Don’t Have to Be a Mystery

We hope this guide has helped take some of the mystery out of the background check process. As you can now see, the whole thing is as simple as checking some computer databases and making a few phone calls.
With the ambiguity out of the way, why not check out one of these great gigs to start making some extra money?

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