Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Michael Klazema. He 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.
“What can a prospective employer learn about me when they run a background check?”
The above query is becoming one of the most frequently asked questions among job searchers, up there with how to build a winning resume, which references to list, and what interview questions to expect. That’s because pre-employment background checks themselves are becoming more common. Employers these days simply aren’t willing to take risks on the people they hire, and running background checks is one way to minimize those risks.
Unfortunately, just like the above questions about resumes, references, and interviews, there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to the question posed by the title of this article. There is a fairly wide range of different background checks that an employer could run on you, so you need to be prepared for the possibility that a wide range of information about you could also be on the table once your prospective employer does run a background check.
Luckily, while there isn't a concrete answer to this question, there are a few good bets. Background check policies may vary drastically from workplace to workplace, but there are types of checks that you can usually expect across the board, and other varieties that you should anticipate if you are applying for specific types of jobs.
Criminal history: If your pre-employment background check is going to reveal one piece of information about you, it’s your criminal record. Criminal history checks are the cornerstone of most job-related background checks, simply because employers want to know if their prospective hire has any skeletons in their closet. Usually, employers are looking for big crimes--violent offenses, sex crimes, fraud or embezzlement, other felony convictions--and background checks don’t include arrest reports.
However, even if you’ve only been convicted of a minor crime--petty theft or misdemeanor drug possession, for instance--it’s a good idea to disclose it on your application if there’s a question about criminal history. Employers will generally look more kindly on applicants with criminal histories if those applicants are honest and forthright about their past mistakes.
So if I don’t have a criminal record, I have nothing to worry about?
Here’s the challenging angle with criminal background checks. Most applicants assume that if they don’t have any criminal history, they are automatically in the clear for this part of the background check. That’s not the case: mistakes in the filing of criminal reports at different courthouse, errors during the background check process, or even identity theft can result in surprise criminal charges showing up on your record. So if you want to maximize your chances of getting a job, it's a good idea to run a background check on yourself, just to make sure everything is as it should be. Chances are pretty good that your report will be accurate, but they aren’t at 100 percent. Running a background check on yourself and then calling a courthouse or background check company to fix any errors is like doing a dress rehearsal to make sure that you can pass your prospective employer’s background check.
Inconsistencies in your education or employment history: The second piece of information that a pre-employment background check is likely to reveal is any inconsistencies or inaccuracies with the education and employment history you listed on your application or resume. The easiest way to avoid getting in trouble at this stage, of course, is to just be as accurate and honest as you can on your resume. Don’t change your previously held job titles or embellish your past work responsibilities: simple phone calls to previous employers can reveal these common resume fibs.
On the same note, don’t say you have a college degree in something if you don’t, don’t claim to hold a professional license or certification you don’t have, and don’t lie about previous salaries or employment dates. Most employers will take the time to verify all of this information because it is pivotal for determining whether or not you are the right fit for the job at hand. Needless to say, any dishonesty in these categories will not be warmly received.
Credit history: For a long time, many employers have looked into the credit history of their applicants in order to assess character and responsibility. That's beginning to change because debt and bad credit are so common and rarely have any relevance to the actual job being offered. However, if you are gunning for a position involving the management of money or finances, employers will probably still look at your credit history to decide if they want to trust you with that lofty responsibility.
Driving records: Similar to credit history, not all employers will care about your driving record. However, if the job you are applying for involves driving, this will be an integral part of your background check. From minor speeding tickets to serious license suspensions and beyond, employers can use this information to determine whether or not you would be a liability as a driver for their company.
Civil history: Many companies run civil history background checks, while many others don’t. In other words, it’s always hard to predict whether or not a prospective employer will bother looking at your history in civil court. However, some employers will want to know if you’ve ever been a defendant in a major court case--whether it was about eviction, nonpayment of debt, personal injury, destruction of property, or any other claim. These checks are used to basically fill in the blanks where criminal records leave off, and can provide a lot of information about an applicant, their temperament, their character, and their overall history. Therefore, any suits, claims, or judgments against you could be revealed to a prospective employer via a background check.
Background check policies come in many different shapes and sizes. It’s tough to know whether the company you are looking to work for is just going to do a simple criminal history check, or if they are going to go the whole nine yards with other checks as well. Bottom line, just be prepared to have every piece of history that you have in each of the above categories analyzed as a hiring consideration. If there’s anything you are particularly worried about or not proud of, it might be best to get out in front of it and disclose it to your prospective employer. That way, at least, you get a chance to tell your side of the story.