What Is Background Checking?
Definition & Examples of Background Checking
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, 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 the institutions you graduated from to verify that you have the degree that you said you have. Although you may have heard that you shouldn't give dates for degrees as that can be a proxy for age, companies use that information for background checking. You may want to omit dates from your resume but include them on your job application. If you've changed your name, include your previous name on your application so employers can find your information.
Verifying Previous Employment
Potential employers also want to confirm where you've worked. Some previous employers may be willing to answer questions, but others may only confirm whether you worked there and your employment dates. In the past, potential employers may have checked your salary history, but that's falling out of fashion and is prohibited in some states.
Talking With References
Employers may also speak with your former managers or coworkers unless you've specifically asked them not to. The laws governing reference checks vary from state to state. In general, previous employers can discuss your work history as long as they are truthful and they don't violate anti-discrimination laws. Potential employers will typically ask for your written consent to perform 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. Still, job searchers should be aware that what they put online is potentially accessible to any potential employer.
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.
If a job involves security or handling money, prospective employers are likely to perform a credit check. You have to give written permission for your credit to be checked, so if that hasn't happened, you don't need to worry.
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.
- 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 checking, including verifying employment and academic credentials, talking with references, drug screenings, and credit checks.
Monster. "Things That Can Make You Fail and Employment Background Check." Accessed July 17, 2020.
Paycor. "States With Salary History Bans." Accessed July 17, 2020.
Checkster. "The Legal Issues of Reference Checking." July 17, 2020.
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "Pre-Employment Inquiries and Arrest & Conviction." Accessed July 17, 2020.
Federal Trade Commission Consumer Information. "Background Checks." Accessed July 17, 2020.
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "Pre-Employment Inquiries and Financial Information." Accessed July 17, 2020.
FindLaw. "Lying on a Resume or Job Application." Accessed July 17, 2020.