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  • Writer's pictureExpert Resume Pros

How Exactly Do Employers Conduct Background Checks?

You’ve applied for a job and have passed through to the first interview. You’re confident that you’re the perfect fit for the position, and you used a resume and LinkedIn profile writing services to ensure your competence shines through to the prospective employer.

After the interview, you receive a message in the email that reads something like this: “We conduct background checks on all final candidates. This helps us ensure the accuracy of the provided information and assess a candidate’s suitability for the position. Please verify your consent with this procedure.”

If you haven’t lied in your resume—which puts you in a minority—you’ve typically got nothing to worry about. Still, you’re probably wondering what happens behind the curtain and how employees perform these fabled background checks. Well, read on to find out.

a black woman looking at a resume through a magnifying glass with the words "What is included in background checks?"

What Are Background Checks and Why Are They Important?

Employers want to hire the best person for the job. However, not all candidates decide to be completely honest about their history. Whether it’s about obtaining a degree or having noticeable gaps in employment, candidates try to patch up holes in their resumes. Employees often look for any inconsistencies to streamline the hiring process.

Since a resume is often an idealized and curated version of a candidate’s experience and expertise, employers will usually dig a little deeper before they are ready to make a final offer. After all, the new hire can access vital company files and secrets, and the damage done by providing access to a malicious actor can be devastating.

Therefore, it’s no surprise that over 90% of employers conduct background checks on prospective employees.

But what exactly does that process entail?

Breaking Down the Background Check

A background check is a surprisingly complex process that can take weeks to complete and involves following multiple laws and regulations.

Step 1: Obtaining Consent

Before an employer can conduct a background check (or use that information if they used a third-party service to do so already), they must inform the candidate about their intent to do so. The employer must clearly state what information they are verifying and how it will be used to finalize their decision.

The consent form can also request additional information, such as driver’s license information.

Once you’ve received the email or message, responding with a confirmation allows the employer to obtain and verify your history. However, if you don’t give them permission to perform a check, an employer may reject you immediately.

Step 2: Ensuring Compliance with the EEOC and Local Laws

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), employers can’t discriminate based on sex, race, age, religion, color, nationality, disability, or family medical history. Even if an employer knows some of this information beforehand, they must not make a hiring decision based on these factors.

Furthermore, the EEOC prevents employers from asking for medical information that impacts the candidate’s ability to perform the role before an official offer of employment.

Additionally, some states and counties have local laws that limit what can be included in a background check.

The words "Employment Background Verification" showing a pie chart showing social medica checks, criminal background checks, drug screening, etc

Step 3: Contacting a Background Check Company

There are many different types of background checks:

  • Criminal history check: Returns information about felonies or misdemeanors, incarcerations, and cases of crimes against the state.

  • Civil history check: Similar to a criminal history check, but only provides cases where another party sued you in court.

  • Verifying employment history: Returns detailed data on previous job positions, including titles, descriptions, and employment duration.

  • Education or certification verification: Checks whether the applicant has the credentials that were listed in the resume.

  • Role-specific checks: These include verifications that depend on the job description. For example, someone hiring a driver may check their driving record, while a company that deals with finances might check your credit history.

  • Drug screen: Provides a history of drug use and convictions, as well as outlining drug screening protocols before and during employment.

  • Identity history verification: Checks whether the candidate previously used an alias.

  • Address history verification: Checks the candidate’s previous addresses.

Depending on the position and the employer, background checking can include anything from getting local records from the county to a full-blown FBI investigation.

While some information, such as civil history checking, can be done relatively quickly at a local level, others require time that many employers simply don’t have. Furthermore, previous addresses in other counties can prompt additional checks that only prolong the process.

That’s where companies that conduct background checks come in. They are certified businesses that have the authority and the knowledge to get accurate information quickly to speed up the background check.

Background-checking companies must comply with the FCRA (Fair Credit Reporting Act) as well as any local laws.

Employers also must state to the reporting company that a candidate has provided written consent and acknowledge that they will comply with the FCRA and EEOC throughout the process.

Step 4: Compiling a Background Report

The company that performs the background check will obtain public records from the county listed in the applicant’s resume but will also perform more thorough national checks on their identity. These are used to obtain accurate criminal, civil, identity, and address histories.

After that, the company will contact previous employers listed in the resume to verify the candidate’s previous roles and employment history. The company will do the same with educational institutions to confirm their academic status.

Then, the company will perform any additional checks required by the employer.

At every part of this process, the background check involves either crawling through different databases (since there are several levels of criminal databases) or directly contacting institutions to verify the information provided in the resume. This is why many employers choose to consult third-party services in the first place or conduct limited background checks themselves.

Online background checks can take a few days since the company usually has detailed databases on the most common records they need to crawl for identity verification. However, verifying the education and employment history can take a while, depending on past employers’ response times.

When the background-checking company finishes its job, all the information on the candidate(s) is compiled into a consumer report and delivered to the employer. The report can be formatted in a way that cuts out unnecessary information and creates a curated list of results.

Photo of a bunch of blue men lined up for a background check and one man stands out in red

Step 5: Monitoring Social Media

While not an official part of the background check, an employer may check your social media accounts to verify your information and determine whether your online presence correlates with the company culture. Even this part of the check can be offloaded to a dedicated social media background check company, which creates its own report.

Step 6: Forwarding the Report to the Employee

Before the employer can form a decision based on the background check, they will send you a copy of your consumer report alongside a document from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau entitled A Summary of Your Rights Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. This allows you to verify the information and correct it if needed, which will typically need to be done with the institution responsible for the erroneous information.

Step 7: Making the Decision and Informing the Applicant

After the employer has received a report and verified with you that the information inside is correct, they will make the decision.

If you get rejected based on the background check, the employer must provide the name and contact information of the company that performed the check and give you 60 days to check whether the report was complete. The employer will also verify that the third party did not make the hiring decision for them.

If you get a job offer—Congratulations!

Step 8: Keeping the Reports

Once the employer has decided to hire or reject the applicant based on the background check, they must keep the report on file for between one and two years (depending on the company type and size). After that, the reports can be incinerated or shredded, and electronic copies permanently removed.

Step 9: Drug Testing

A pre-employment drug test is usually conducted after an employer extends a provisional offer, so after the rest of the background check. Of course, not all employers will conduct drug tests, but they are common in health care, construction, defense, and IT sectors.

The employer will partner with a drug testing company that maintains local clinical collection sites. You will need to provide a urine sample, which is then shipped to the lab facility and tested for the most common substances.

Some companies will also require a hair sample, which can show drug use in the past 90 days. The testing company will also ask whether you’re taking any prescription drugs that may cause a failed drug test.

Can You Influence Whether You Pass a Background Check?

The information provided in a background check uses public and educational institution records and responses from past employers. There’s no real way to fudge that data in your favor.

However, you can enlist the help of a cover letter writing service to help you streamline your resume and cover letter to remove irrelevant employment history. Since there are no national databases that contain this information, an employer might not be able to verify this information. Keep in mind that this should be done sparingly and with positions that truly don’t impact your application’s outlook.

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