What Is Background Checking?

Definition & Examples of Background Checking

Businesswoman conducting a background check.
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Background checking occurs when an employer confirms the information provided by a job candidate. It may include checking other aspects of a candidate's background, including whether there's a criminal history.

Learn more about background checking and how it works.

What Is Background Checking?

Employers do background checks to learn more about a candidate's background. They want to confirm the information provided on the application or resume and in interviews and uncover any potential issues. The goal is to make the best hiring decisions possible.

There is no standard background check, and organizations vary when it comes to exactly what they check. Financial institutions may check a candidate's credit, but a fast-food restaurant probably won't. There's also no standard for passing or failing a background check as each employer decides what's acceptable and what isn't.

How Background Checking Works

Employers may use one or more third-party services to do background checks. They may also check some aspects in-house, like calling references. Here's how different types of background checks work.

Verifying Academic Credentials

Organizations will check with academic institutions to verify that candidates have the degree indicated on their application materials. Applicants will need to provide graduation dates and previous names so this information can be obtained.

Verifying Previous Employment

Employers typically confirm where candidates have worked. Some previous employers may be willing to answer questions, but others may only confirm whether an applicant worked there and their employment dates. In the past, potential employers may have checked on salary history, but that's falling out of fashion and is prohibited in some states.

Talking With References

Employers may also speak with former managers or coworkers unless they've specifically been asked not to. The laws governing reference checks vary from state to state. In general, previous employers can discuss a candidate's work history as long as they are truthful and they don't violate anti-discrimination laws. It's common practice to obtain written consent before performing a reference check.

Conducting Drug Screens and Physical Exams

Some jobs require drug screens and/or require that employees pass a physical exam. The need for physical exams should link directly to the nature of the job and employee safety. In most jobs, a physical examination isn't required.

Testing Skills and Knowledge

Some employers require testing to confirm specific skills. Let's say a customer service position requires handling customer service by email. A candidate for that position may be asked to produce a sample email in response to a hypothetical customer complaint.

For other positions, a senior management candidate may be asked to give a presentation on increasing sales. Applicants for an HR recruiter position might have to produce a recruiting improvement plan. Demonstrations like these confirm that the candidate has the promised knowledge and skills before employers make a job offer.

Many recruiters and hiring managers perform an internet search on job candidates. There's a lot of controversy about whether employers should use the information they find out this way in their hiring decisions.

Criminal Background Checks

Criminal background checks search for convictions, not arrests. The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) says, “Federal law does not prohibit employers from asking about your criminal history. But, federal EEO laws do prohibit employers from discriminating when they use criminal history information. Using criminal history information to make employment decisions may violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended (Title VII)."

A criminal history may not eliminate applicants from positions; it depends on the specific history and situation. Employers are prohibited from using criminal background checks for some applicants but not others.

Credit Checks 

If a job involves security or handling money, prospective employers are likely to perform a credit check. Written permission is required for credit to be checked.

Additionally, the EEOC strongly cautions against the over-use of credit checks. According to the EEOC, "Federal law does not prevent employers from asking about your financial information. But, the federal EEO laws do prohibit employers from illegally discriminating when using financial information to make employment decisions."

Employers can't apply credit checks to some potential employees and not others, and they can only conduct a credit check if it helps to identify "responsible and reliable employees."

If it's determined later that an employee lied about credentials, qualifications, experience, education, and so forth, the employer may fire the employee.

Key Takeaways

  • Background checking is when an employer confirms the information provided by a job candidate. It may include checking other aspects of a candidate's background, like their criminal record. 
  • Employers do background checks to confirm information is accurate and make the best hiring decisions possible. 
  • Employers may use third-party services to do background checks. 
  • There are several types of background checks, including verifying employment and academic credentials, talking with references, drug screenings, and credit checks. 

Article Sources

  1. Paycor. "States With Salary History Bans." Accessed July 17, 2020.

  2. Checkster. "The Legal Issues of Reference Checking." July 17, 2020.

  3. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "Pre-Employment Inquiries and Arrest & Conviction." Accessed July 17, 2020.

  4. Federal Trade Commission Consumer Information. "Background Checks." Accessed July 17, 2020.

  5. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "Pre-Employment Inquiries and Financial Information." Accessed July 17, 2020.

  6. FindLaw. "Lying on a Resume or Job Application." Accessed July 17, 2020.