What Does a Background Check Show?

Last Updated:
April 7, 2023

Whatever you apply to a new job, odds are your employer will request that you complete a background check. A background check is a deep dive into your background as a job candidate and as a law-abiding citizen, including information like whether you were convicted of previous crimes and what your credit history is.

But what exactly does a background check show? In truth, the contents of a background check report can vary depending on the provider, the job you apply to, and other factors. Let’s take a closer look.

Name and Aliases

Most background checks look into job candidates’ names and aliases by default. Each job candidate has to list a legal name when applying for a job, but they may have different aliases that they go by. They may additionally have other names that they previously went by.

Say that you got married one year ago and changed your last name. When you apply for a job, your background check will show that you changed your name because of your marriage. Furthermore, the background screening agency will use that data point to locate other info from your criminal or job records prior to your marriage.

Aliases don’t necessarily preclude you from being employed. However, if you have lots of different aliases and many different names, this could be a red flag on your background screening report. You may be required to explain yourself to your prospective employer.

Residence History

Most background checks also look into residence histories for job applicants. This is oftentimes a simple list of how many addresses a candidate has lived at over a given timeframe, like a few months or a few years. Some background screening companies will look at the last seven years of residence history for a comprehensive breakdown.

The majority of companies, however, are only interested in whether a candidate actually lives in the place they mentioned on their job application. That’s because that can affect a candidate’s ability to commute to the office or to perform other workplace functions. So long as your background check shows the same address that you put on your job app, it shouldn’t matter too much.

Criminal Background Searches

It’s no surprise that criminal background searches are some of the most important points of interest on background screenings. Employers want to know that the people they hire are trustworthy and are legal citizens. Having a criminal background doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t get a job, but it can make getting employed in certain industries or professions more difficult. It may also prevent you from qualifying for jobs in various industries, like law enforcement.

Criminal background searches are typically broken down into three main parts.

National, State, and County-Level Searches

First, the background screening agency will look into the criminal records at the national, state, and county levels. National criminal records may include the same information as state and county-level criminal databases, but they may also be a little less specific.

If a background screening agency determines that you were convicted of a crime in the past, like a DUI or misdemeanor, it may dive deeper into the state or county-level criminal databases where you were convicted. Depending on the background check ordered by your employer, it may include even more information, such as the nature of the conviction, whether you served prison time, etc.

Note that different types of crimes may stay on your record for different lengths of time. For example, some states allow misdemeanors to disappear from your record after 7 to 10 years. Other states require all crimes, including both misdemeanors and felonies, to remain on your permanent record.

On top of that, your employer may request a search of your previous criminal accusations, not necessarily convictions. If you are ever accused of a crime, that information may show up on your background report for up to seven years.

Terrorist Watchlist Check

The terrorist watch list is a database that uses domestic and global sources to determine whether an individual is on a wanted list of terrorist activity or suspicions. Some background screening services include terrorist watchlist checks as part of their criminal background checks, but not all. This part of a criminal background check is usually only necessary or required by employers for security-related or government positions.

Sex Offender Registry Check

Many organizations also request sex offender registry checks from their background screening reports. These check the national sex offender registry, which is maintained by the US Department of Justice and all 50 states.

Note that only some background screening agencies provide this information by default. Others charge employers extra money to check for this information. Regardless, your name will only show up in this registry if you were previously convicted of a sex offense, not if you are only accused of it.

Employment Verification

In addition to criminal background searches, background screenings frequently include verification of job candidates’ previous places of employment. This is vital when establishing a job candidate’s employment history or professional path.

For instance, if you apply for a new job and previously worked at a competing organization, you should list that on your resume. It shows your prospective employer that you already have some of the skills and techniques needed to thrive in your new position. But your employer will want to double-check that the information is accurate before hiring you.

Employment verification can involve calling previous companies and inquiring about their employment records. Or it may involve online research, depending on the tools and preferences of the screening agency.

If your background screening report indicates that there is a gap in your employment history – for instance, maybe you left your previous job, then took a few months off to recuperate or go on a vacation – your employer may ask you about the gap. Again, a gap doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t receive a job offer, but it helps to have a good explanation for your absence from the workforce.

Education Verification

Many employers also want to verify a job candidate’s employment history before hiring them. That’s especially important if a given job or industry requires job candidates to have certain degrees or credentials.

For instance, if you say you acquired a bachelor’s degree from a local university, your background check may include a verification that you received the degree from the university as claimed. Depending on the comprehensiveness of the background report, it may also include information like:

  • Whether the university in question is accredited by national or regional organizations (accreditation is a strong marker of college and degree quality)
  • Whether your degree was acquired from multiple schools or just one
  • And so on

Professional License Verification

Various jobs and industries require workers to hold professional licenses, including programming, manufacturing, finance, healthcare, etc. If you apply to a job that requires one or more professional licenses, and that requires those licenses to be up-to-date, your employer will ask a screening agency to check back in your background report.

Professional license verification is usually straightforward, as these licenses are handed out by national or regional licensing organizations. If one of your licenses is out of date, that information may show up on your background screening report. You’ll then have to explain yourself to your prospective employer or renew your license by taking a test, completing continuing education credits, or something else.

Professional Reference Check

Any job applications include sections where candidates can list professional references. Professional references are peers, bosses, college professors, and other professional individuals who can vouch for your abilities or accomplishments. A healthy list of professional references is oftentimes necessary for some of the highest-paying, most competitive positions.

Some background screening services will check professional references instead of requiring your employer to do it instead. This involves calling the references one by one or otherwise contacting them to verify your claims and abilities.

Drug Test Check

At your previous or current place of employment, you may have been subjected to a drug screening or test. Such drug tests check to see whether you ingested or absorbed drugs of different types in the past, such as alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, etc.

Since third-party companies perform drug tests, background screening agencies can contact those companies and verify the results of your drug reports. For example, if you failed a drug test a few years ago, that result might show up on your current background report, compromising future job offers.

Motor Vehicle Records Check

Motor vehicle records checks involve digging into DMV/Department of Motor Vehicles records to investigate a job candidate’s driving history, including their history of DUI convictions, speeding tickets, or other traffic infractions. This information is usually included in county and state databases.

The motor vehicle records check is often only necessary for jobs that may require you to drive a vehicle on behalf of your employer, like being a rideshare driver or a delivery driver. If your job doesn’t require it, your employer may not request that information in your background report.

Civil Records Check

Lastly, many background checks also examine civil records, which include:

  • Records of previous marriages
  • Records of lawsuits and claims against you
  • Records of liens
  • Records of other civil disclosures and activities like debt collections, domestic violence, foreclosures, etc.

Note that these kinds of searches are normally only required for executive positions or jobs where candidates will have a lot of responsibility and social clout. For entry-level jobs, they usually aren’t necessary.

How Can You Tell What a Background Check will Include?

According to federal law, a prospective employer must provide you with a form explaining the reasoning and details of a background check before ordering it. You then have to sign the form and give your written consent before the background screening can begin.

Therefore, whatever you apply for a job and submit to a background check, you should know what it includes, at least broadly. Depending on the form your employer provides, it may be more or less specific regarding the exact information it will investigate.

However, the form should include the name of the screening company performing the background check. Once you have that information, you can Google the company’s name and find out the information that it usually examines. 

What if There’s a Mistake in Your Background Check Report?

If there’s a mistake in your background check report, you could have grounds to file a dispute against the screening agency or file a lawsuit if the inaccurate information is not corrected ASAP.

The Fair Credit Reporting Act gives you the right to receive an adverse action notice if you are denied a job opportunity because of your background information. Your employer should provide the adverse action notice.

Once you have it, you can identify the background screening agency that generated the report, read through the results, and dispute the information with them. That dispute can be filed online or by physical mail. Regardless, your dispute must be investigated by the screening agency within 30 business days.

Then, if the company agrees that there was inaccurate information in your report, it has a legal obligation to correct the inaccurate info and report that to your employer. Once you receive your background check report, read through it carefully to notice any errors or inaccurate information! 

Wrap Up

As you can see, a background check can show lots of different information, ranging from your credit history to your criminal history to your previous employment records. It’s important to know what a background check will show before applying to any new job, both so you aren’t taken by surprise and so you know what to look for in terms of mistakes.

Background screening services can and do make mistakes when performing background checks. If this happens to you, and you lose a job opportunity as a result, you do have options. Fair Credit can help you file a dispute against the background screening company and even potentially file a lawsuit if you have the right grounds. Contact us today to learn more.

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