What Is an Employment Background Check? (+ Sample)

Last Updated:
April 7, 2023

When you apply for a new job, odds are your employer will request a background check at some part in the process. A background check is a standard investigation of your educational and criminal background, usually taking just a few days to complete. So long as your background check goes smoothly, a potential employer may offer you a job if you ace your interview and are otherwise qualified.

But what exactly is an employment background check, and what’s included? Read on for the answers to these questions and more.

Employment Background Checks Explained

Put simply, employment background checks are deep dives into a job candidate’s background. Depending on what’s needed by an employer, employment background checks might look at a job candidate’s work history, credit history, or criminal convictions.

Think of employment background checks as double-checking your stated credentials and history. So long as you provide your employer with accurate information, you have nothing to worry about from a background check.

Background checks can vary heavily in terms of what they look at, how long they take, and who does them. Generally, businesses small and large alike use third-party background check agencies to perform their background check services. Employees have to individually agree to or submit to background screens – they don’t happen automatically.

Here’s an example of an employment background report from the popular background-checking company Checkr.

What’s Included in an Employment Background Check?

A given employment background check might look at a wide range of information. It usually depends on what an employer needs from a candidate.

Say that you apply to be a waiter at a restaurant. It's a relatively low-risk, low-responsibility position, so employers might only ask a background screening agency to look at your employment history and criminal records. In contrast, a high-responsibility position, like being a police officer, usually warrants a more comprehensive, in-depth background check of criminal history, employment history, etc.

Here are some of the most common elements included in an employment background check.

Employment History

Most background checks look at a job candidate’s employment history, including the jobs they’ve held over the last several years and for how long they held those jobs. Your prospective employer should already have this information, as it should be included in your resume, and a background check will confirm that you gave that prospective employer the truth.

Criminal Records

More importantly, employment background checks usually look at a job candidate’s detailed criminal history, including their history of:

  • Misdemeanors or minor infractions
  • Felonies, which are usually more serious crimes 
  • Speeding tickets or other driving infractions, like DUI convictions

Note that some background checks look at both your accused crimes and your convictions. Depending on your state of residence, your criminal history (if applicable) may or may not be visible depending on how long ago those accusations/arrests or convictions occurred.

In most states, your criminal history is permanent. It doesn’t matter if you were convicted of a misdemeanor, for example, 20 years ago. Your employers should be able to discover that information through a background screening service.

In other states, some crimes may have a limit of seven or 10 years. After this point, criminal arrests or convictions may disappear from your record, possibly making it easier to get a job later down the road. Check your state’s background check laws and other information to determine what applies in your case.

Financial History

An employment background check will also typically check a candidate’s financial history. This involves looking at things like:

  • Records of bankruptcies
  • Records of large loans
  • And so on

Note that this element of an employment background check is only applicable and useful if you’re applying to jobs in the financial or lending sector. For instance, if you are applying to be a loan officer for a mortgage company, you can bet that the background check will examine your own financial history to make sure you have a financially savvy mind and are responsible with money.

Credit Check

Similarly, the majority of background checks include at least a cursory or soft credit check. A credit check looks at your credit score from one or all three of the big credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.

Your credit score is an estimate/analysis of your overall financial responsibility. If you have a high credit score, you pay your bills on time, don’t have excessive lines of credit open, and pay down your debts when you take them out. If you have a low credit score, it could impact your ability to get a job, especially in the financial sector or for management or executive positions.

Credential Check

Lastly, if a job position requires a candidate to have certain credentials, like licenses or degrees, the background check for that job might include a check on those credentials. For example, if you need a law degree to be a lawyer, your background check to work at a law firm will include confirmation that you have a JD degree. 

Privacy in an Employment Background Check

As touched on above, different states and areas have different limits in terms of background check timeframes and privacy. Furthermore, legislation like the FDCPA and FCRA require background check agencies to only provide employers with accurate, unbiased information.

For example, you have the right to privacy for bankruptcy information that is older than 10 years from the date of the background check. You also have the right to privacy for information regarding civil suits and civil judgments after seven years in most cases, as well as records of arrest after seven years.

On top of that, any accounts placed for collection and paid tax liens shouldn’t show up on your background check information after seven years if you are applying to a job with a salary of less than $75,000. Bottom line: you may be entitled to the privacy of certain information on your background check depending on which job you are applying to. 

Why Are Employment Background Checks Important?

Employment background checks are vitally important for employers for one big reason: they don’t want to hire dud candidates.

A candidate can look wonderful on paper and even do a great job at an in-person interview. But if they don't have the credentials they say they do, or if they have a history of criminal activity, that employer might think twice about hiring that candidate.

Employment background checks give employers the tools they need to vet job seekers before hiring them, especially when hiring a new employee means giving them access to sensitive information or important company systems. Employment background checks are even more important for high-level, high-responsibility positions, like management positions or jobs where the candidate will handle a lot of crucial, sensitive customer information.

How Long Do Employment Background Checks Take?

Employment background checks usually take anywhere between five and seven business days to complete. However, the more comprehensive and complex a background check is, the longer it takes on average.

As touched on above, certain government or high-level jobs may require more in-depth background investigations. These types of background checks can take several months to wrap up. On top of that, background checks can be delayed if the background check agency has difficulty acquiring certain records, if inaccurate information is provided in a candidate’s job application, etc.

What if You Fail an Employment Background Check?

If you fail an employment background check, you won’t necessarily not get a job offer. But your employer may have questions about the issue in question.

For example, if you have a record of an arrest in your past, your employer may ask more about the arrest to determine whether they still want to give you a job offer. If you fail an employment background check, the nature of the negative information may impact your employment prospects more than failing outright depending on the type of position you apply to.

Can Screening Agencies Make Mistakes?

Unfortunately, yes. Specialized background screening agencies can and do make mistakes when it comes to job candidate background information.

They might mistake two people if they have similar names or Social Security numbers, for instance. They might also provide employers with out-of-date or erroneous background information, like out-of-date court records or debts that aren't in a candidate's actual name.

In these cases, candidates can receive adverse action letters notifying them that they are denied job opportunities because of their background information. Then they can dispute that erroneous information and get it corrected with the assistance of background error law firms like Fair Credit.


An employment background check is a comprehensive look at your work history, credit history, and criminal background. While background checks are standard parts of the job hunt, mistakes can affect your job offers and opportunities.

If you think that your background check has one or more errors, contact Fair Credit today. Our knowledgeable attorneys can help you file a dispute letter with a third-party credit screening agency, plus provide you with sound legal counsel if you need to file a lawsuit.

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