The Facts about Background Checks

by Anya Jennings on February 17, 2010

Times have changed. The internet has made privacy virtually a thing of the past, and increasingly, employers are utilizing all available information to evaluate candidates in this tight job market. What’s changed to make background checks so intrusive? Information availability. In the past, an employer would have to hire a private investigator at great expense of both time and money. Today, a few clicks of the mouse, and your entire background is exposed – sometimes painfully.


What can employers check?

Legally, you must sign a consent form in order for employers to look into your background, and separate forms for them to access medical records or an investigative report – which gives them your permission to call people you know, talk to your neighbors, etc. Once you’ve handed over blanket permission, they have access to the following information:

  • Driving records
  • Vehicle registration
  • Credit records
  • Criminal records
  • Social Security number
  • Education records
  • Court records
  • Workers’ compensation
  • Bankruptcy
  • Character references
  • Neighbor interviews
  • Medical records
  • Property ownership
  • Military records
  • State licensing records
  • Drug test records
  • Past employers
  • Personal references
  • Incarceration records
  • Sex offender lists

Why would they want to know this stuff?

Some of these things seem pretty random, and not every employer will require the full list. But some jobs will need to weed out violent offenders and sex offenders to avoid potential liability, some need driving records for jobs that include a company vehicle, and all of them want to avoid people who have an established pattern of working a short while and then claiming workers’ comp. In addition, they want to know if you lied on your resume.

What they can’t check.

There are national standards defined by the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act to protect your rights, but in many cases, the protections won’t apply to you. Employers who do not hire an outside reporting agency and perform checks in-house are not held to the same standards. The laws only apply to professional reporting agencies. What’s more, if the position you’re applying for pays over $75K, the standards don’t apply at all. Some individual states, like California, offer more protections.

Here’s what the law stipulates cannot be included on an employer background check:

  • Records of arrests, civil lawsuits and civil judgments older than seven years
  • Collection accounts that are more than seven years old
  • Paid tax liens after seven years
  • Any other negative information older than seven years, aside from criminal convictions.

While information about bankruptcies can be included, federal law prohibits discrimination against applicants based on this information. In some states, employers can’t legally seek arrest record information, but such information is a matter of public record and easily found online.

What are your rights?

Not many. The truth is, the only thing you have the right to is the information itself. If an employer decides not to hire you based on something your background search turns up, he is supposed to provide a “pre-adverse action disclosure” that includes a copy of the damaging report and an explanation of your rights. Some employers will allow you time to dispute inaccurate information, but they aren’t required to.

The dangers.

To avoid possible arguments or even potential court actions, many employers will decide not to hire based on your record without explanation or with some vague explanation that another candidate was more qualified. You can be rejected dozens of times due to faulty background reporting and never know why.

To be proactive, before you begin your job search, run a background check on yourself and see what turns up. If there is someone else running around out there with the same name and an arrest record, be prepared to prove it’s not you. Check your driving record, your credit, and your personnel records from previous employers. Search the county court records to find any listed court actions, and check with the local jail to make sure someone who shares your name isn’t in the system.

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