The Background on Background Checks


I’ve been a freelancer for almost 20 years, but every once in a while I have a client who wants me to work as an employee.  Recently, I was surprised to learn that authorizing them to conduct a background check was now a standard requirement for employment.

Pre-employment background checks have become an increasingly common, especially since September 11, 2001, and are now accepted as a matter of course by both employers and candidates.  Over time, background checks have expanded to cover not only more types of positions, but to delve more deeply into the candidates background. Employers use them to mitigate the risk of bad hires, by proving they have done their due diligence.

A recent survey showed that 92% of companies surveyed performed background checks of some sort, and their use is increasing.  Most companies consider criminal record checks and employment verification mandatory, with educational verification as high priority checks as well.  Credit checks are less important, and are more sensitive, especially as the bad economy has left many people with shaky credit.  However, credit checks are still used as an indication of level of responsibility, as well as to verify former addresses and other information.

The other common background checks include work history and credential verification, credit report, and drug screening. Certain things are and are not allowed by US law.

The most common disqualifying factors involve alcohol, drugs and financial irresponsibility.

Since these checks are time-consuming and expensive, they are generally conducted at the final stage of the hiring process, as a condition of an offer of employment.

If something does turn up, the company will consider a number of factors before making a decision to rescind an offer.  These can include the seriousness of the offense, how long ago it occurred, if you followed through on the orders of the court (classes, community service), relevance to the new position, repeat offenses, and so on.  A single, minor offense a long time ago may not be a big deal, but a repeating pattern of serious offenses may cause an offer to be rescinded.

The safest thing, of course, is to never do anything you wouldn’t want an employer to know about.  However, if you think you have a problem, you can do something about it.  Obtain your own credit report, motor vehicle report, personnel file, and so on, and clear up any inaccuracies.  In some cases, you can hire a lawyer and have a criminal record expunged, which can take months but will not remove information from newspaper reports or other non-court sources.

In my case, I requested a copy of the company’s background check, which went back to places I had lived over 18 years ago.  I was pleased to learn that I have “no criminal results reported” and am not a sex offender or FBI fugitive.  However, the Ph.D. field reported by the university was slightly different from what I have had on my resume all these years.  It didn’t keep me from getting hired, but did bring home to me just how complete these background checks are.

For more information on your rights regarding background checks as a job seeker, check out the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse and other sources.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants. Lisa is a scientific communication consultant and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2007).

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