Career Advice

What is a Background Check? The Ultimate Guide for Job Seekers

Have you ever had a potential employer run a background check on you before? Did you wonder what they were looking for and why they felt the need to do that? Or maybe during a job interview you were asked if you’d mind undergoing one. This can understandably feel a little unnerving and strange – especially if you don’t know much about these kinds of checks.

The purpose of this guide is to give you a comprehensive overview of background checks. We’ll answer all of the commonly asked questions about them so you feel 100% comfortable the next time an employer mentions the topic. After all, knowledge is power, right? So, without any further ado, let’s dive right in!


what is a background check? the ultimate guide for job seekers - diversity jobs


#1: What are Background Checks?

At their core, background checks are a way for employers to confirm that you are who you say you are and that your credentials (like your education and employment history, for example) are accurate and correct. In addition, an employer typically performs this type of check to see if a prospective employee has a criminal record that should concern them.

#2: Exactly Which Credentials Are Checked?

Not every background check is the same. Employers can request various types of records, which commonly include:

  • Address history
  • Employment history
  • Education information
  • Professional license verifications
  • Drug screens
  • Driving records
  • Criminal history, which may include:
    • Misdemeanor/felony convictions (that haven’t been pardoned or expunged)
    • Pending criminal cases
    • Arrests that led to convictions
  • Sex offender registry information
  • Domestic Terrorist Watch List information

In essence, this process helps employers confirm that the claims you’ve made on your resume and in person (what college you went to, for example) are truthful. It also makes them aware if you have a criminal record of any kind (unless your convictions have been expunged).

#3: How Do Employers Access This Information?

Employers typically outsource background checks to government agencies or private companies that specialize in accessing various databases, including criminal records, credit reports, and education and employment history. In some cases, they can perform online checks themselves by accessing public records and other commercial databases.

#4: Why do Employers Perform These Checks?

While it may seem uncomfortable or somewhat unnecessary to you, there are several valid reasons why an employer might choose to run background checks on prospective employees.

Let’s list some of them here:

  • They want to make sure they hire people who are trustworthy, reliable, and capable.
  • They want to gain insight into each candidate’s work history, education, and criminal record so they can make the best hiring decisions possible.
  • They want to protect their employees and ensure a safe working environment for them.
  • They want to prevent criminal behavior like theft from occurring at their company.
  • They want to avoid potential liability down the road if something bad were to happen.
  • They want to maintain a good reputation and avoid any negative publicity.

#5: When Do Background Checks Happen? How Long Do They Take?

Because employers usually pay another organization to conduct background checks for them, they typically only run them on candidates who seem very promising. Hence, background checks usually occur after the interview but before an offer has been extended. In some cases, however, the employer will run the check earlier on in the hiring process – right after you’ve applied for the job or during the interview portion, for instance.

Ultimately, the employer can choose to run one at any point while they’re considering you.

Most background checks are completed within two to seven days or so. In some cases (usually government-related), they can take up to 30 days.

#6: Are Employers Legally Allowed to Require These Checks? Can I Say No?

By law, employers are allowed to require that any prospective new hire undergo a background check; however, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) establishes restrictions and regulations on the process. A government entity that creates and enforces discrimination laws in the workplace, the EEOC oversees all kinds of work situations, including background checks.

You might be tempted to decline the background check. While you’re completely within your rights to do this, just be aware that you probably won’t get the job.

#7: What Federal Laws Impact Employment Background Checks?

Employers that choose to run these kinds of checks must comply with both federal and state laws. While state laws can vary, here are some of the federal laws that pertain to background checks (and what they do):

  • Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA): The purpose of the FCRA is to make sure that the information disclosed by consumer reporting agencies is fair and accurate. It protects consumer privacy by regulating how employers can use the information they collect.
  • Title VII: This section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires the EEOC (mentioned above) to ensure that protected classes of candidates aren’t treated differently than others due to a company’s criminal background check policy.

#8: Do Some Employers Use Background Checks More Than Others?

Not all employers perform background checks on prospective employees. But these checks can be particularly important for certain roles, including those that involve working with children, the elderly, or handling large amounts of money, for example.

In other words, those positions that involve a high level of risk or trust often require background checks. Some additional examples include jobs within the government, schools, courthouses, financial institutions, hospitals, and airports.

In summary, you won’t necessarily always have to worry about this aspect of the hiring process – it depends primarily on the industry you’re in and the particular employer.

#9: Will a Background Check Impact My Credit Score?

It won’t, so don’t worry about that at all. Background checks are considered soft inquiries, meaning that your financial information is only being pulled for informational purposes. This is in contrast to a hard inquiry, which is usually performed by a lender when you apply for a loan. While hard inquiries have the potential to negatively impact your credit score, in the case of a background check, your credit score won’t be impacted at all.

#10: What Can I Do to Prepare for a Background Check?

While a check like this might feel somewhat out of your hands, you do, in fact, have some control. The main thing you can do is be honest – both in how you convey information on your resume and in person during the interview process. In this way, your claims will certainly match any checks that are carried out later.

Along this same vein, it can be helpful to maintain accurate records of when and where you attended school, when and where you were previously employed, and so on. This way you can provide correct information to employers as you apply for jobs.


what is a background check? the ultimate guide for job seekers - diversity jobs


So there you have it! Lots of information about background checks so you’re not caught off-guard as you try to land a new position. Job searching is challenging enough! The last thing you need to worry about is the background check portion of it. Rest assured that many companies won’t even run one, but if you’re in an industry where it’s commonly done, keep all your ducks in a row (be honest and keep accurate records) and you’ll be just fine!