The job interview went well, so it wasn’t that much of a surprise when the hiring manager called to make you an offer contingent on a background check, which your new employer would conduct now that you had accepted the job. As long as that went well, all would be fine and you could soon report to work.

What Is a Background Check?

Businesses and organizations conduct background checks covering work history, credit history, criminal convictions, driving records, education verification and other areas before hiring a person. The background check is a way for the company to verify that the information someone provided is accurate and that nothing pertinent was left out.

But that’s just a formality, right? 

Maybe. But maybe not. Just how extensive that background check will be varies from company to company. The accuracy of the background screening can also vary.

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Why Companies Check Backgrounds

The odds that you will be the subject of a background screening before you are hired are pretty high. A study by the Professional Background Screening Association found that 93 percent of organizations across the globe report that they conduct some type of background screening for new hires.

The top three reasons companies give for doing the screenings are to protect employees and customers, improve the quality of hires and protect the company’s reputation, the report said.

In the United States, most companies wait until they give the applicant a conditional job offer before conducting the screening. Presumably, they want to hold off until things are fairly well settled before they go to the time, trouble and expense. Outside the United States, background checks are more likely to happen after the interview but before a job offer is made.

 

What Background Checks Look For

While not every screening is the same, employers may research credit history, criminal convictions, driving records, education verification and other types of personal information that may or may not be relevant to the job you are being considered for.

For example, if you are applying for a desk job and will work from home, with no commute or on-the-job driving involved, how much difference does it make that you had a speeding ticket several years ago?

Employers doubtless have no nefarious intent when they do these background checks. They just want to try to hedge their bets as much as possible when they bring someone into the company. That’s understandable. 

But these days many people are rightfully concerned about what’s happening with their personal identifiable information. Employers gather information such as your Social Security number and date of birth to verify your identity, but what happens to that information if you don’t get the job? Is it protected from cyber criminals who might try to hack the business? You would hope so, but many businesses aren’t set up to act as shields against such cybersecurity breaches.

 

What Background Checks Can and Cannot Do

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission laws govern background checks. For example, if the employer plans to contract with a third-party background reporting company to do the check, then they must get your written permission. 

Employers who ask about your background must ask the same questions of everyone they interview. They can’t discriminate based on race, religion, national origin, sex or any other protected class. As just one example, they can’t ask you additional background questions because of your race.

Employers can ask about employment history, education, public records, financial or credit history and what you post publicly on social media. They can’t ask about medical information if they haven’t offered you a job. (Under some circumstances, they can ask about medical information after the job offer is made or after you start work.) They also can’t ask about genetic information.

If an employer decides not to hire you because of something that turned up in a background check run by a third-party company, then they must tell you that and let you know how to contact the company that did the background check. You can ask for a copy of that company’s report about you so you can review it.

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Background Check Confusion

With background checks, of course, sometimes there is confusion or mistaken identity. That’s what a man in Connecticut claimed happened to him when he lost a new job because a background check falsely reported that he was a convicted drug dealer. The real drug dealer had the same name. The man filed a lawsuit against the company that conducted the background check.

The Federal Trade Commission offers helpful tips on what you can do before you apply for a job to mitigate some of the problems that could crop up in a screening. For instance, check your credit report to make sure everything is accurate. And if there’s any reason to be concerned about criminal record mistakes, check to find what local law enforcement or the FBI might have under your name. 

Both employers and job candidates must make sure background checks accurately and fairly accomplish what they are supposed to.

But some of the responsibility falls to the employers and to the companies doing the screening. They should help protect people’s privacy as much as possible and do everything they can to make sure their reports are accurate. 

For example, my company, Trua, offers TruaScore, an advanced digital background screen. One of the things we do is share the information ahead of time with the job candidate so they can verify their identity and background data before we share the information with the employer. This minimizes significant burden on employers in terms of adverse action, dispute resolution and potential downstream litigations and wrongful claims. Most importantly, our background check never expires.

Employers can also ask job applicants to get their own background check through a third-party service, verify the information and then share it with the company. That would eliminate a number of concerns for both the employer and the job candidate.

Background checks in the hiring process aren’t going away. Both employers and job candidates must make sure background checks accurately and fairly accomplish what they are supposed to.

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