Unraveling the mystery of background checks
Background checks are downright nerve wracking. Employers typically request them when you're pretty close to being hired, and even model employees can get sweaty palms wondering if they've overlooked something that will stand between them and the job they want.
For applicants with a slightly tarnished history, the stress is even greater. But you may be able to relax: depending on what, when and where it happened, the information keeping you up at night may never even cross your boss's desk.
We're going to let you in on all the secrets: what background checks cover, why a potential employer wants to know this stuff in the first place and what you can do about it.
Who usually requires background checks, and why?
There are two main reasons employers want background checks: personal safety and financial security.
Personal safety factors in whenever a job gives you access to, or control over, other people. Correctional officers, security guards, airline careers and some construction jobs are just a few of the many positions where employers need to know who you are before they bring you on board. Aspiring daycare providers, teacher's assistants and bus drivers take note: if you want to work with children you can bank on a background check.
While most people mean well, it only takes one dishonest employee to spell financial disaster for an employer– which leads us to the second major reason for background checks: financial security. Jobs that have access to large sums of money, small valuables or that put people in positions where they might be offered bribes are often subject to background checks. This includes jobs like bank tellers, jewelry retail and electronics sales positions. Planning to work in a hospital? Plan to pass a background check. Most people wouldn't dream of taking medical supplies from the people who need them, but employers need to be sure they don't hire someone who would.
What does a typical background check include?
Simple background checks confirm your Social Security Number, while high-level security clearance can include an investigator who visits your friends and acquaintances to grill them about the only subject they have in common: you.
In most cases, background checks include:
- Employment history– who you worked for and when.
- Financial history– bankruptcies, credit score, tax liens etc.
- Criminal history– if you've been in court for it, it's probably here.
So what won't be included?
- Education, medical and military service records - without your consent, employers cannot access this information (though you may be asked to allow them to research it).
- That one night you spent in jail 23 years ago -- state laws vary, but some have limits on how long an offense is included in your background summary (provided you served your sentence).
What can you do to improve your chances of employment?
Do your homework; you can order a background check on yourself for between $20 and $50. Seeing the results gives you a chance to prepare for questions from your employer, as well as ensuring the information is correct. Background checks aren't 100 percent accurate, and you certainly don't want your job prospect to take the fall for someone's clerical error.
Don't like what you see? Don't worry. Even if you think your background check disqualifies you for certain positions, that knowledge can help you focus on the jobs you're more likely to land (saving you time and energy). Once you've got a new job, use that opportunity to begin building an employment history that will help you get hired next time.