How Employers Conduct Background Checks on Potential Hires in the U.S.
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Whether you recently came to the United States from a foreign country or are merely entering the job market for the first time, you may wonder how pre-employment background checks work around here. The first (and perhaps, most important) thing to realize is that there is no "standard" or "comprehensive" background check that all employers run on their prospective hires. First-time job applicants often assume there is a massive database of background information somewhere that companies can search to find out about their past. While such a database could feasibly exist someday—particularly with the advances in cloud technology—that day isn't today, and furthermore, it's probably still quite a ways in the future.
Instead, employers—or, more accurately, the background check companies they hire to do pre-employment investigations—have to pull together information about their candidates from multiple different sources. And because there are so many different potential sources of background information, all employers are going to have slightly different ways of vetting their potential employees.
The Importance of Criminal History Checks
There is one thing you probably can count on when you are applying for a job: a criminal background check. While U.S. companies vary quite a bit in which pre-employment checks they run, what information they look for, and where they get it, most converge with their views on criminal history checks. It could be argued that the reliance on criminal history for hiring decisions is waning in the United States. With "ban the box" policies taking criminal history questions off of job applications and delaying background checks late in the interview process, employers are being encouraged to consider applicants based on their skills, demeanor, and work experience—not on mistakes they may or may not have made in the past.
With that said, though, criminal background checks remain a standard part of the hiring process for most American companies. The explanations are simple: certain types of felonies—violent crimes, sexually related offenses, etc.—can legally limit the jobs a person can hold. For instance, a sex offender can't legally be hired as a teacher. Background checks help employers make sure they aren't breaking the law with who they hire.
More than legality, though, criminal background checks are often about protecting customers, providing a safe workplace, and limiting liability. If a grocery store chain hires a convicted rapist because they didn’t run a background check, and that person goes on to sexually assault a co-worker, the store can be held legally liable and sued for negligent hiring. For that basic reason, you are going to see criminal background checks utilized in just about any business with which you are seeking employment.
How Employers Conduct Criminal History Checks
While virtually all employers are running criminal background checks on their top candidates, though, how they are doing so can vary quite a bit. Typically, this type of background check begins with a criminal history search at the courthouse in the county where the business is located. Since most people apply for jobs near where they live, and since most people with criminal histories picked up their convictions in their hometowns, county criminal history checks are a logical first step in any pre-employment background check process.
Beyond the county search, employers will diverge on how they handle criminal history. Some will add searches of state police repositories. Others will use multi-jurisdictional databases to try to get a more widescreen view on a nationwide level. Certain employers will even do address history searches on their top candidates and then use that information to order specific county criminal searches in the other areas where a candidate has lived in the past seven to 10 years. So while you should always expect to face a criminal background check before getting hired, there is some wiggle room in terms of how in-depth those checks will be.
Other Types of Background Checks
In addition to criminal history searches, different employers will supplement their pre-employment screening process with various other types of background checks. Here are a few common types of vetting that U.S. companies often do, as well as brief descriptions of how those companies might go about collecting the information.
- Driving Record Checks: Should the job you are applying for involve the operation of a motor vehicle, you will likely be required to pass a driving history check. In most cases, the background check company your prospective employer uses to vet potential hires will look at your driving record in the state where the job is located. A driving history background check report can include any information on your record in that state, including tickets, license suspensions, accident reports, and more.
- Verification Checks: These checks are based on information you provided on your resume or job application—about references, education, work history, and professional certifications. Your employer will call your references, your past employers, the colleges you attended, and any state boards from which you claim to have received certification. The goal here is for employers to find out whether or not an applicant misrepresented him or herself on paper. They are essentially just trying to verify that all of your education and employment history is accurate.
- Civil History: Just like with criminal history checks, the background check company in charge of vetting applicants will dig up records pertaining to you at your local county courthouse. Unlike with criminal checks, these checks will pertain to your history in civil court and will tell an employer if you have ever sued or been sued, and, if so, why.
- Credit History: If your employer asks you to consent to a credit history check, they are basically interested in learning about your history with finances. The employer or a background check company will go through one of the major credit bureaus to get this information. However, please note that credit history checks for employment purposes do not show a credit score. Instead, these reports show your debts, balances, monthly payments, credit limits, and other information and are usually used to gauge your financial responsibility.
Think you're ready to face all of the various types of background checks used by U.S. employees to vet their hires? If not, you might consider running a background check on yourself. Vetting yourself ahead of your interview can show you what hiring managers will see on a background check report and will give you a chance to correct any inaccuracies.
About the Author
Michael Klazema has been developing products for pre-employment screening and improving online customer experiences in the background screening industry since 2009. He is the lead author and editor for Backgroundchecks.com. He lives in Dallas, TX with his family and enjoys the rich culinary histories of various old and new world countries.
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- There is one thing you probably can count on when you are applying for a job: a criminal background check.
- With "ban the box" policies taking criminal history questions off of job applications and delaying background checks late in the interview process, employers are being encouraged to consider applicants based on their skills, demeanor, and work experience—not on mistakes they may or may not have made in the past.
- The explanations are simple: certain types of felonies—violent crimes, sexually related offenses, etc.—can legally limit the jobs a person can hold.
- In addition to criminal history searches, different employers will supplement their pre-employment screening process with various other types of background checks.
- Vetting yourself ahead of your interview can show you what hiring managers will see on a background check report and will give you a chance to correct any inaccuracies.