The job application process includes going over numerous nervous hurdles. Perhaps the most terrifying can be the moment you realize the potential employer is going to start looking into your past. The employment background check is common, with a whopping 98% of surveyed businesses conducting them.

What happens during an employment background check? This guide will help you understand:

  • What employment background checks are?
  • What information employers can look at and under what circumstances?
  • How the process unfolds?
  • What are your rights if you’re denied employment based on the check?
  • How to prepare for a smooth employment background check?

Let’s get started!


Employment background checks are self-explanatory. They are essentially the employer checking your past – whether what you are claiming on your resume is true and whether there is something they should be aware of before handing you the job. These checks can also be referred to as background screenings or pre-employment screenings. It’s the employer’s opportunity to ensure you are who you say you are.

The checks are normally conducted either in-house by the HR department or by an external company. There are third-party companies that conduct the checks for the employer – for instance, they can help a small business that might not have the time to conduct a thorough search. The employer will always get the result so there is not much difference to you as the candidate whether it’s the company conducting the search or another firm.

So, what do the employers check? Although the checks are thorough, you won’t have to worry about the employer finding out the kind of cereals you ate in the morning. You’re phone also won’t be listened to! Jokes aside, the employment background check can include:

Checking if you have a criminal record
  • looks at your criminal record history and whether you have convictions.
Confirming your education record
  • including attendance and grades.
Examining your employment records
  • whether you’ve been employed by the companies mentioned on your resume.
Checking your credit history
  • examining if you have declared things like bankruptcy or if you have negative credit history
Motor vehicle and license records
  • including information regarding your driver’s license or any professional license needed in your line of work.
Civil records
  • including any other relevant information that might pop up.

Some of the above are considered reference checks. For example, a reference check is when the employer contacts your previous employers to ensure the things you’ve talked in the resume are true.

The others are background check that might not come up in your job application – for instance, whether your driver license is valid or if you have criminal convictions. It’s important to understand that both of these elements, the reference and the background check, are integral information for the employer.

All of that might sound extensive but don’t worry. There are certain restrictions on the information your employer can see.


There are national standards for the information your potential employer can see. So don’t lose your sleep just yet. In the US, the Fair Credit Reporting Act sets standards on what information employers are allowed to screen and under what circumstances.

The Act actually prevents the employer from seeing information on:

  • Any bankruptcies you might have filed after 10 years.
  • Any civil suits, civil judgments and arrest records after seven years.
  • Any paid tax liens you might have.
  • Any accounts placed for collection after seven years.

So, your past information might not pop up at all. However, it’s also worth noting there are differences in how the above is applied. The most notable one is that the restrictions don’t apply to an external company. Essentially, if the company is using a third party to perform employment background checks, they can access more information. In addition, the restrictions also don’t apply for jobs with an annual salary of $75,000.

Furthermore, certain checks are only allowed for certain positions. For example, employers are not able to request credit check reporting unless the position is financial in nature – you might be in charge of a lot of money and therefore, the employer wants someone with positive credit rating and so on. So, the checks won’t be a CIA-style analysis of everything you’ve done in the past. They are just the employer’s way of ensuring you’re a good citizen, able to do the job and you’ve actually done the things you claim in your resume.

Then there are instances where the employer can access information only after the job offer has been made. Workers’ compensation records are an example of these – they can be viewed but only after you’ve already received the job offer.

One thing your employer won’t be able to see is your political affiliation or voting records. Well, unless you are openly touting your political allegiance on social media! However, you can’t be discriminated against information like this so don’t worry about that.


Employment background checks don’t happen without your knowledge or consent. They follow a certain procedure and you will have the opportunity to respond to the findings.

The process of checking the records usually takes place in the latter stages of the job application process. It is often conducted right as the employer is about to offer you the job. Indeed, employers often make job offers on the condition that you pass the employment background check.

When the employer is about to embark on the process, you will be informed and you will need to provide consent. You will ALWAYS need to provide written consent to the employment background check – if you don’t, the employer cannot start looking up the information. However, they might also take you away from the shortlist as a result. This depends whether the background checks they are looking to perform are reasonable in terms of the job in question.

The consent form you receive should explain exactly what is being checked. If you don’t understand the process of the form, you definitely want to talk to the HR department. They should be able to provide you with information regarding the check and explain what information will be part of the check. Always make sure to read the consent form and to understand it.

Furthermore, you will need to provide the employer with details that make the process smoother. This generally includes information such as:

  • Your current address
  • Your date of birth
  • Your social security number
  • Any possible driver licenses or other licenses you might hold

Make sure the information is correct to ensure a smooth process. A simple spelling mistake can lead to a longer investigation and it might even result in incorrect reporting – you definitely want to pay attention to ensure the above information is correct.

The employer will then conduct the research and provide you with the results. You will always be provided information regarding the results and you can ask for a copy. There is often no single source for all the information, so the researching party will access different data sources (governmental and non-governmental) to find the required information.

When the employer receives the report, they will usually notify you. You will definitely hear from them in case the employer decides to deny you employment based on the findings. But you can also request to receive a copy of the report even if this isn’t the case.

If you are denied employment based on the report’s findings, you will be given the opportunity to dispute it.


When your employer finds something in your background check they don’t like, they might deny employment. If this happens, you will have the right to dispute the findings in a process called the adverse action. This will effectively put the hiring process on hold, as the employer can’t deny you employment while there’s an on-going dispute.

You will receive a written notification from the employer about their intent to deny employment. You’ll also receive a copy of the background report and the employer should include a document outlining your rights during the adverse action process.

Generally, you have a week to respond to the findings and to dispute them. This timeline might be different depending on state and national legislation but it should be mentioned in the letter you receive. If it isn’t, you should contact the HR department and ask for advice.

If the information on the employment background check is incorrect, you should definitely dispute the findings and seek a fresh investigation. For example, it might have accidentally mixed your social security number and the report might claim you have a criminal record even when you don’t. A fresh investigation will be conducted and your potential employer will receive the new report. This should help overrule the intention to deny employment. If you’re still unhappy and feel there is a mistake in the report, you can ask for a fresh investigation.

On the other hand, if the report is correct and enough to deny employment, you don’t have much choice but to accept the decision. You can always consider talking to the HR department and get them to overturn the decision. However, you have signed a consent form to the check, which would have explained the reasons for rejection – if you don’t meet the requirements, you don’t have much choice but to move onto the next job.

There is a lot more information on who to contact if you feel you’ve been discriminated against based on the background check on the US Government website.


However, the above doesn’t mean you don’t have any power over the background checks. There are things you can do to prevent being denied the job opportunity due to the findings. You can reduce your risk of being rejected simply because of you didn’t pass the employment background checks.

Here are some of the best ways to prevent disqualification and increase your chances of landing a job:

Enter correct information on your job application.

Clean your social media profiles and maintain a clean online presence.

  • You shouldn’t lie on your resume under any circumstance. The employment background check is aimed at spotting those who tell lies – you shouldn’t polish your resume by changing dates or adding information that simply isn’t true.
  • The employment background check is not just about criminal records. Often, the employer is more concerned about your online presence and your social media is often the first place employers look to find any possible problems.
  • Be detailed with the employers, institutions and publications you mention. Ensure the names and dates are correct and you reduce the risk of being flagged by the check.
  • If you want to ensure you’re hired, keep your private stuff private and create a polished and professional look for your public profiles.

It’s a good idea to consider conducting your own background check prior to applying for jobs. Third party services that help employers also allow private individuals to use the service. For a fee, you will be able to see what the employer will find out and this makes it easier to prepare for it.

If you know you have a traffic violation, then you can discuss it with the employer beforehand and clear out the issue. It’s much easier to be upfront about your past mishaps – it shows that you’re not trying to hide it but you own up to your mistakes.

The “Yes, I’ve made a mistake but I learned from it” approach is much better than keeping your mouth shut until you are caught. You don’t need to delve into it any deeper than that – a short explanation and reassurance it won’t happen again should be enough to put your potential employer’s mind at ease.

It’s also important to keep in mind that small offences and quirks in your background check are likely not going to come up or lead to rejection. Not all jobs really care if you have a parking violation – if it’s a small one-time offence and from something that’s not related to your job, your employer is unlikely to reject your application.

This is especially the case if you are the perfect candidate in every other aspect. So, unless you’ve done a serious criminal offence or your offence could hinder your ability to perform the job, you shouldn’t necessarily lose sleep over it. So, as a rule of thumb:

  • In the minor cases (such as parking violations), you can forget the whole thing and just focus on performing well with your job application.
  • If it’s something more serious like a DUI, you might want to pick it up during the interview, for example. Help clear any concerns the employer might have in advance to the report.

It’s also about a pattern of behavior that employers tend to be more concerned about. If you’ve done a few bad things in your youth but then clearly stepped up the mark, the employer is probably going to be forgiving.

But if you end up lying on your resume and also show a criminal history, then they might think twice what it says about you.


Employment background checks are common and you had better prepare for them. It’s important to know what your employer might find out and to be able to show how you’ve moved on from any troubles in the past. You shouldn’t lose your sleep over them but you also want to understand how the process works and what you can do to limit any damage the findings might do.

After all, the most important thing for the employer is your ability to perform in the role. If you can show good character right now and convince your employer with a good resume, cover letter and job interview, then you will get the job!

Comments are closed.