What Employers Look for in Background Checks: A Complete Guide

January 11, 2022
Checkr Editor

Editor’s note: Nothing in Checkr’s Blog should be construed as legal advice, guidance, or counsel. Companies should consult their own legal counsel about their compliance responsibilities under the FCRA and applicable state and local laws. Checkr expressly disclaims any warranties or responsibility or damages associated with or arising out of information provided.

Applying for a job is a complex process. It typically begins with an application, continues with two or more interviews or phone screenings, then moves into references and a background check. Hiring, onboarding, and training any candidate is a big investment in time and resources. In fact, hiring the wrong person can cost employers about 30% of a candidate’s first-year salary on average. 

Background checks are a simple and useful way for employers to ensure a safe work environment and give all candidates a fair chance at available opportunities. And most employers do take advantage—94% of businesses conduct background checks. But what do employers look for in background checks? 

Some industries, including commercial transportation, education, and healthcare, follow regulations that mandate certain pre-employment screening. As a candidate, the hiring process can sometimes take months, and you don’t want to invest your time and effort on an application that won’t pan out because of a messy social feed or a mistake in the distant past. Whether you’re interacting with the public or handling sensitive data, the background check has an impact on your employment.

A background check can sound scary, but employer screenings are common, simple, and should be pain-free. The process is even easier if you know what to expect.

How background checks are performed

Every employer will have a unique approach. So, if you’re wondering, “what are employers looking for in a background check?” there isn’t one correct answer. 

Besides individual preference, screening processes will vary by:

  • Business size
  • Job type
  • Resources
  • Industry
  • Location

There also isn’t one single source of information for pre-employment screening. When working with a comprehensive service like Checkr, your employment screening will access many trusted information sources. 

What do employers look for in background check screenings? Most information in a background check is part of the public record, but it’s tough for employers to collect this information independently. Some background check services also charge for exhaustive reports that include information employers can’t or don’t use. Other low-cost services can include dated or inaccurate data. 

Employers follow many laws and regulations that impact how they choose to complete a pre-employment check. It’s risky to conduct these checks independently, so most will use trusted third-party solutions.

What employers look for in background checks

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) dictates which information an employer can and cannot use during a background check, at the federal level. FCRA guidelines also outline the requirements for candidate permission before the background check process begins. One of the requirements is that an employer must notify you about any background check in writing and get your written authorization before they start.

So, what do employers look for on a background check? They are looking at you as a candidate for a role with specific responsibilities. Any check they perform will consider your background from that angle. A pre-hire investigation might check your:

It may also include a review of your driving record, social media feeds, or credit history.

The data your potential employer plans to collect must have a permissible purpose. For example, if you’re applying for a delivery driver position, your driving record will likely be reviewed to assess your ability to perform safely. 

Employers often use a combination of anecdotal and data-driven information when reviewing applicants. A background check can provide some of this valuable data. 

Let’s talk about some common types of information that we deliver in a background check.

Criminal records

Criminal searches are often the first thing that comes to mind during a conversation about background checks. What do employers look for in a criminal background check? This record usually includes:

  • Misdemeanor convictions 
  • Felony convictions 
  • Pending charges (if permissible under applicable state law)
  • Acquitted charges (if permissible under applicable state law)
  • Dismissed charges (if permissible under applicable state law)

Background checks benefit both the consumer and end user by helping establish a community of trust and transparency. Background checks can also mitigate negligent hiring and wrongful termination lawsuits.

There is no central database of criminal information, so Checkr uses an AI-powered platform to provide comprehensive criminal background information. 

Identity and social security verification

Pre-employment screening also works to confirm your identity. This may sound like a strange thing to check, but over 49 million people were victims of identity fraud in 2020. 

A social security number (SSN) trace is not the same as ID verification. While the SSN trace checks whether submitted information matches commercially available data associated with the particular SSN, it is not meant to determine whether the person entering that information is who they claim to be. That type of verification is best performed by the party directly engaging with the employee—whether that’s the employer or the contracting company.

An employer might also verify addresses on your job application to confirm that the information you provided on your application is accurate. While it may be tempting to rush through the job history section of a job application, if an application requires the address of a former workplace, look it up to make sure the address is correct.

Employment history

When considering a candidate, many employers consider their past job experience. Some job openings require a set amount of prior experience in an industry or position. Employers also use this data to assess skill sets and experience. Employment verification includes:

  • Job title
  • Employment dates
  • Reason for leaving (when available)
  • Salary (when available)

HR managers and former supervisors will usually limit their responses for employment verification to these simple questions to avoid legal or defamation claims. 

Our process will verify your last three employers. This is still a stress-free process if you have work experience in multiple countries because we offer both domestic and international record collection. Our candidate portal makes it easy to check your report status on desktop or mobile, so you know what’s happening while you wait. 

Reference checks

Some employers request references at the time of application, while others will request a list of references later in the application process. What do employers check in background checks? Excellent references will help your employer get a sense of your character, skills, and what you bring to the workplace from the perspective of your past managers or coworkers.

Social media

Different states have specific laws about how employers can use social media feeds during the hiring process. That said, 70% of employers use social media to screen prospective candidates. According to a recent Checkr report, 75% of executives surveyed admit to searching a candidate online to learn more about their record. While employers are most likely to check LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook, an employer could look at any social media account you have online. 

In addition, 47% of employers also expect candidates to have a social media presence. Some candidates will create unique social accounts for professional purposes. What do employers look for in a background check via social media? These are the top three:

  • Professional image
  • Creativity
  • Industry qualifications and insights

Education and credentials verification

What do employers look for in a background check around education and other credentials? In addition to completion of a degree, hiring teams may use this information to confirm that your education has prepared you for the role they’re looking to fill. 

For example, a candidate for associate professor of law should have an undergraduate degree and a Juris Doctorate degree from an accredited law school. In addition, they need to have passed a bar examination. 

Most education verification covers your entire academic history up to the highest degree you’ve completed. Checkr completes both domestic and international education verification. 

Driving record

A background check into your driving record is typical for jobs that involve driving a vehicle. In addition to delivery, trucking, and heavy construction jobs, this type of screening may also come up in sales jobs or other positions where you might use a company car for meetings.

An unsafe driving record, extensive tickets, or a past DUI could surface during this check. Checkr offers continuous motor vehicle checks for employers looking to expand their driver networks, improve safety, create cost savings, and build a strong brand.  

Credit check

This is another role-specific screening. If you’re wondering what do employers look for on a background check—it is typical for employers in finance, including trading, banking, and loan services, to review your credit score. Some employers may do a pre-employment check on this information if it’s relevant to the job description. 

About 16% of employers run credit checks during pre-employment screening. Credit checks for employment are heavily restricted in eleven states and jurisdictions, including:

  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Chicago
  • Maryland
  • New York City
  • Washington, DC

What employers can’t look for in background checks

Though it may seem like any check will surface a wide variety of information, there is data that employers cannot access or use during the hiring process. 

Medical records

Doctor-patient confidentiality protects medical records, so a background check will not include any details on your medical history.

Criminal history details

While many background checks review your criminal record, they do not include comprehensive details on that record. Many states also have laws to hold this search to the last seven years, but every jurisdiction has their own lookback period. Others restrict the use of arrest records and dismissed charges. All states ban the use of sealed or expunged records.

There are a few other things that employers cannot ask about, research on, or use to decline your job application during the hiring process. These include but are not limited to:

  • Political views
  • Gender, sex or sexual orientation
  • Marital status
  • Disabilities
  • Race or ethnicity 

If any of these topics come up during the application process, be sure to document mentions in writing.

How to prepare for a background check

Now that you have a better sense of what employers look for in background checks let’s talk about how you can prepare. 

Before beginning the job application process, pull together your paper and digital copies of any academic transcripts.  It’s also a good idea to archive pay stubs and other records that show your work history. Keep a list of contact information for past employers and references. This will make it easier to accurately complete job applications.

Check your background yourself

It’s a great idea to check your own background record so that you can see the same information your potential employer plans to review.

If you’re not sure where to find this information on your own, these are some helpful resources:

  • Criminal record: The Department of Public Safety (or equivalent) in your state
  • Driving record: Your state DMV

Assess your online presence

You may also want to look yourself up on Google and make sure that you’re comfortable with the information you find about yourself online.

Next, review your social media feeds. You can set your social media accounts to private. If this won’t work for you, you may want to edit posts or images you think may create a wrong impression about your ability to succeed in the workplace.  

Contact previous employers

Stay in touch with your references and update them on your new career paths, skill sets, and upcoming reference checks. This way, your references are ready for potential outreach. 

It’s also a good idea to reach out to your previous workplaces if you have any concerns about employment verification. You can ask previous employers for a copy of your personnel file so you have a complete picture of what they might share. 

Be proactive

Once you complete your independent background check, prepare for what may come next. If you have any concerns, schedule a conversation with your potential employer. If you’re not comfortable initiating this conversation, create an outline so you’re prepared to respond to questions. 

If a potential employer does find something of concern, know your rights as a candidate. Employers must follow the Adverse Action notification process if they decide to reject your application because of findings during your screening. 

They will send you a document that explains the exact information they found that led to their decision. They will also tell you how to get a copy of the report.

More background check information

There are a few more things you should know to get a clear picture of what an employer might look for before making a job offer. 

Drug tests

Some industries, including transportation, healthcare, and manufacturing, may run employment drug or health testing. This is for compliance and to reduce accident and injury risks. This testing is separate from a background check, but it may also be part of the hiring process for a variety of roles, including:

  • Driving
  • Technical or factory positions
  • Operating heavy machinery

Learn more about what employers look for in background checks

As you prepare for your background check, stay calm and confident. Every employer will have its own adjudication standards. Most will give you a chance to explain anything that comes up during your screening, especially information that might not reflect who you are today and what you can bring to their organization.

Eighty-five percent of Checkr background checks are complete in 24 hours. This can help employers give you a decision sooner.

Contact us if you’d like to learn more about the background check process.

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