Background checks are standard parts of job application processes these days. Company HR departments reach out to dedicated background screening services to investigate the employment and criminal histories of new job candidates, ensuring that they only hire the right individuals.
But for candidates, background checks can introduce another layer of uncertainty into their job hunts. After all, if a background check is delayed, the job seeker has to go for even longer without a paycheck. Let’s break down how long a background check takes and what factors can affect background check timeframes in detail.
A background check, in a nutshell, is a look at a job candidate’s background history across different metrics or things. For instance, a restaurant hiring a chef might perform a background check by looking into the chef’s:
Have they worked at similar restaurants before and if so, do they have recommendations from peers or superiors?
Does the chef have a degree or credential from a reputable educational institution?
Does the chef-to-be have a history of criminal convictions which could indicate they would be a problematic hire?
Think of a background check as a look at whether a job candidate’s history qualifies them for future work at a given establishment. Lots of employers don’t want to hire, for example, those who have many criminal convictions in the recent past. Or they may only wish to hire job candidates who have specific degrees, so they perform background checks in order to make sure job applicants have the degrees required.
Background checks are standard parts of most hiring processes these days. Generally, companies don't perform background checks by themselves. Instead, they outsource the work to third-party background screening agencies, who use a combination of in-person and digital research to locate the required information.
At the end of the research phase, background check companies compile all the information in a report and send it to a prospective employer.
As a job candidate, you usually have to wait until your background check is complete and your employer has the report until you can begin work at a new job, even if you have already received a provisional offer (like an offer contingent on your background check not showing any worrying information).
The average background check usually takes between two and five business days. A business day is any standard weekday that isn’t a federal holiday.
For example, say that you send in your employment application on Wednesday morning. Your prospective employer sends your information to the background screening agency on the same day. You will probably get the results of your background check, and your employer may offer you the job, by Friday at the earliest and Tuesday or Wednesday of the next week at the latest.
Many background checks are fairly quick these days. That’s because background screening agencies receive all the information they need about a candidate electronically via email or information portals. Then they do most or all of their research online or by contacting records offices at candidates’ previous counties of employment or residence.
That said, some background checks can take much longer than 2 to 5 business days. Some can also take much less time, being completed in a matter of hours!
There are lots of different factors that can affect background checks and how long they take to complete. Here’s a breakdown of each of these factors.
Firstly, the type of job you apply for will affect how long it takes for your background check to complete. That’s because your job type affects the information that your employer wants to know about.
If you apply for a relatively low-risk, entry-level position, like a waiter or rideshare driver, your background check won't be that comprehensive or in-depth. Instead, your employer will probably just want to know about things like:
If so, are the convictions for misdemeanors or felonies?
Your employer probably won’t care about your specific degree or whether you have one
Do you have any positive recommendations or referrals you can call on?
That’s it. In a lot of cases, these types of job background checks can be completed in a few hours or a few days.
Let's say that you apply for a high-risk, high-security, government position. You want to work for the national archives or for a police precinct. In those cases, your background check needs to be more comprehensive and in-depth because the employer wants to know that you can be trusted with sensitive information, weapons, etc. Such a background check might include checks for things like:
Generally, the more in-depth or complex a background check has to be, the longer it takes to complete.
As touched on above, background check complexity can directly affect how long it takes to finish. But background check complexity isn’t just affected by the type of job you are applying for.
It also depends on things like:
If you have worked at a lot of previous places related to your new prospective employer, they might want to check each and every one, extending the length of your background check
For instance, if you get married and change your last name, your background check might take a little bit longer to make sure that the screening agency checks the records of the right person
There’s little you can do to affect whether your background check has a lot of complexity. If your check takes a lot of extra time because of this factor, all you can do is sit back and wait.
Sometimes, background check records are more or less available. For instance, say that the background screening company needs to check the county court records to make sure you are never convicted of criminal activity.
Unfortunately, in the county where the records are stored, the clerk's office is understaffed. Even worse, all the records are on paper or physical; none of them have been digitized. Digitized records are easier to retrieve and faster to send than physical ones.
Because of the limits of this office's records, your background check gets delayed. Generally, records that are stored in more rural or out of the way areas are less accessible than the records at more developed, metropolitan counties, although this can vary heavily.
Lastly, the accuracy of the information you provide to your prospective employer or background screening agency does affect your background screening time.
For example, if you make a mistake during your job application and inaccurately list a reference by misspelling their name, the screening agency might reach out to that reference. When the reference can’t be located, the screening agency then has to contact you and figure out what the problem is.
Therefore, it’s in your best interest to make sure that your job application has 100% accurate, up-to-date information. That will reduce the likelihood of inaccuracies slowing down or stopping your background check.
Despite your best efforts, background checks can and do happen from time to time. There are lots of potential reasons why your background check might be delayed, causing your background check to take more than five business days or even several weeks to complete.
Firstly, your background check might be delayed if you ever lived or worked under different aliases or names.
For example, say that you previously went by an alias while working a delivery driver job. You were so well known by that alias that many official documents have that name instead of your birth or legal name.
This kind of confusion can make it difficult for background screening agencies to determine whether they are investigating the right person or if they have the right records. If you have any aliases, try to list them on your job application so the background check agency knows to check for multiple names.
The same thing can happen if your name changes for things like marriage or divorce, as well.
Furthermore, if you have a common name in your area or culture, your background check might take longer if the screening agency gets confused or has to take extra steps to verify your identity.
Imagine that your name is something very common, like Mary A. Anderson. Since there are plenty of Mary A. Andersons in your area, the background screening agency has to use things like Social Security number or work history to make sure that every record it pulls is for the right to Mary A. Anderson and not a different one.
Most screening agencies anticipate this kind of difficulty, though, so they aren’t usually delayed unless they fully mistake your identity for someone else’s.
A screening company has issues with record retrieval, your background check could be delayed, too.
For example, during COVID-19, many counties closed their courts and clerk offices in order to minimize virus transmission. But because those courts had not digitized those records, the records of criminal activity, selectivity, and more remained locked in file cabinets.
During the pandemic, candidates looking for jobs often faced long background check delays because screening companies had to request someone to go to the closed courts and retrieve the records promptly. If this happens to you, try to bear with it and be patient. There's often little you can do to accelerate the process, even if your employer continually inquires about the status of your background report.
Speaking of your employer, your employer may make mistakes that can delay the results of your background screening.
For instance, if your employer doesn't have the right authorization or release forms, or if it doesn't give them to you quickly, the background screening agency can't legally go through with its check. Federal law requires you to clearly consent to a background screening.
So, if an employer doesn't give you the right forms during the application process, you'll have to wait until you get those forms and sign them before your background check begins in the first place.
You can also make mistakes that may jeopardize or delay your background check results. For instance, if you misspell one of your names, or you give the wrong telephone number for one of your professional references, that could delay your background check since the screening agency will have difficulty finding out who’s who.
To reduce the likelihood of this affecting your background check, make sure that you fill out your application 100% accurately and carefully. Double-check all the names and phone numbers you list, as these are the most common places to accidentally have typos.
All in all, the average background check takes between two and five business days. Some background checks can take a few hours, while other, more complex and comprehensive checks may take several weeks to complete. Remember that there are lots of factors that can delay your background check results; try to file your initial job application accurately and carefully to minimize those factors.
If your check is delayed because of a mistake or erroneous information, you still have options. Fair Credit can help you look over your background screening report, locate inaccurate information, and file a dispute with the background screening company in question. Contact us today to learn more.