Background Check

June 1, 2023
Reference Checks
Discover the significance of background checks in hiring. Learn about types, process, legal considerations, and benefits for HR professionals.

What is a Background Check?

A background check refers to the process of investigating and verifying an individual's personal, educational, professional, and criminal history. It involves collecting and analyzing information from various sources to assess a candidate's suitability for employment or other purposes. The objective of a background check is to obtain accurate and reliable data about an individual to make informed decisions during the hiring process. Background checks can include criminal record searches, employment and education verifications, credit history checks, reference checks, and more. By conducting a thorough background check, employers gain insights into a candidate's qualifications, integrity, and potential risks that may impact their suitability for a particular role.

Importance of Background Checks in Hiring Process

The importance of conducting background checks in the hiring process cannot be overstated. Here are key reasons why background checks are crucial:

  1. Mitigating Risk and Ensuring Safety: Background checks help employers identify any red flags, such as criminal records or past misconduct, that could pose a risk to the workplace and the safety of employees and customers. By screening candidates, employers can make informed decisions to protect their workforce and minimize potential liability.
  2. Verifying Qualifications and Credentials: Background checks play a vital role in verifying the accuracy of a candidate's claimed qualifications, such as education, degrees, certifications, and employment history. This verification ensures that candidates possess the necessary skills and experience to perform the job effectively.
  3. Protecting Company Reputation: Hiring individuals with a history of unethical behavior or fraudulent activities can damage a company's reputation and lead to financial losses. Background checks help organizations safeguard their reputation by identifying potential risks and making informed hiring decisions.
  4. Compliance with Legal and Regulatory Requirements: Many industries and positions have legal requirements for conducting background checks. For example, positions involving financial responsibilities may require credit history checks. Adhering to these legal obligations helps organizations avoid legal consequences and maintain compliance with relevant regulations, such as the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidelines.
  5. Creating a Qualified and Reliable Workforce: By screening candidates, employers can ensure they hire individuals who possess the necessary qualifications, skills, and experience for the job. This helps build a capable and reliable workforce, contributing to increased productivity and reduced employee turnover.

What Does a Background Check Show?

A background check can reveal a variety of information about an individual's personal, educational, professional, and criminal history. The specific details that a background check may include depend on the type and scope of the check conducted. Here are some common elements that a background check can show:

  1. Criminal Records: A background check may reveal any criminal convictions, pending charges, or arrests in an individual's history. This includes information from local, state, and federal criminal databases, as well as sex offender registries.
  2. Employment History: Background checks can verify an individual's past employment, including job titles, dates of employment, responsibilities, and reasons for leaving. Employers may contact previous employers or use professional background screening services to obtain this information.
  3. Education Verification: Background checks confirm the educational credentials claimed by an individual, including degrees, diplomas, and certificates. This verification ensures that candidates have the necessary educational qualifications for the position.
  4. Professional License and Certification: For positions requiring specific licenses or certifications, background checks can validate the authenticity and current status of these credentials. This verification ensures that candidates possess the necessary qualifications for regulated roles.
  5. Credit History: If permitted by law and relevant to the position, a background check may include a review of an individual's credit history. This provides insight into their financial responsibility, payment history, and potential red flags related to financial integrity.
  6. Reference Checks: Background checks may involve contacting references provided by the candidate to gather feedback on their character, work ethic, and job performance. This helps employers assess a candidate's suitability for the role and validate the information provided.

It's important to note that the specific information included in a background check can vary based on legal requirements, the employer's preferences, and the level of the position being considered. Employers should communicate their specific requirements to the background screening provider to ensure that the check aligns with their needs.

How Long Does a Background Check Take?

The duration of a background check can vary depending on several factors, including the type and depth of the check, the volume of information to be processed, and the responsiveness of data sources. While there is no definitive timeframe, here are some general considerations:

  1. Standard Checks: Basic background checks that involve criminal record searches, employment verifications, and education verifications typically take a few business days to complete. These checks rely on readily available public records and can be processed relatively quickly.
  2. Comprehensive Checks: More thorough background checks that include additional screenings such as credit history, professional license verification, and reference checks may take longer. These checks involve contacting multiple sources and can take anywhere from one to two weeks to complete.
  3. International Checks: Conducting background checks on candidates with an international background typically takes longer due to the complexity of verifying records across different countries and legal systems. The duration can vary significantly depending on the country involved and the availability of information.

It is important to note that these timeframes are estimates, and delays can occur due to various factors such as incomplete or conflicting information, data source responsiveness, or administrative processes within the background screening provider. It is advisable for employers to work with reputable background screening providers who can provide estimated timelines based on the specific requirements and scope of the checks.

Types of Background Checks

Criminal Background Check

A criminal background check is a crucial component of a comprehensive background screening process. It helps employers assess the potential risks associated with hiring an individual who may have a criminal record. Key points to consider include:

  • Purpose and Scope: Criminal background checks aim to identify any past convictions or pending criminal charges. The scope of the check may vary based on the position's sensitivity and legal requirements.
  • Process and Data Sources: Background screening companies utilize various data sources, including county, state, and federal criminal records, sex offender registries, and global watchlists, to gather information.
  • Compliance with Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA): Employers must comply with the FCRA, which outlines specific requirements for obtaining and using consumer reports, including criminal background checks. Adhering to FCRA guidelines helps ensure fairness, accuracy, and privacy protection.

Employment History Verification

Employment history verification involves verifying the accuracy and authenticity of an applicant's work experience and employment details. This verification helps employers assess a candidate's reliability, honesty, and consistency. Key considerations include:

  • Purpose and Scope: Employment history verification confirms the candidate's previous job titles, dates of employment, job responsibilities, and reasons for leaving.
  • Verification Methods: HR professionals may contact past employers directly or engage with background screening firms specializing in employment verification.
  • Importance of Contacting Previous Employers: Contacting previous employers allows HR professionals to verify the accuracy of the candidate's stated work experience, validate their skills, and obtain insights into their job performance and professional conduct.

Education Verification

Education verification ensures that a candidate possesses the educational qualifications claimed in their application or resume. This verification is crucial for positions that require specific degrees or certifications. Key aspects include:

  • Purpose and Scope: Education verification validates the authenticity of the candidate's educational background, including degrees, diplomas, and certificates.
  • Verification Methods: HR professionals may contact educational institutions, such as universities or colleges, to verify the candidate's educational credentials directly or engage with specialized verification services.
  • Detecting Diploma Mills and Fake Degrees: Education verification helps identify fraudulent claims, such as degrees obtained from diploma mills or the use of counterfeit certificates.

Professional License and Certification Verification

Professional license and certification verification confirms the validity and currency of any professional licenses or certifications claimed by a candidate. This verification is particularly important for regulated industries or positions that require specific qualifications. Key considerations include:

  • Purpose and Scope: Professional license and certification verification ensures that the candidate possesses the necessary licenses or certifications to perform their job duties.
  • Verification Methods: HR professionals may contact the issuing authorities or licensing boards directly to verify the authenticity and current status of licenses and certifications.
  • Importance of Validating Licenses and Certifications: Verifying licenses and certifications helps mitigate risks associated with hiring individuals who lack the required qualifications, protecting the organization from legal and reputational consequences.

Credit History Check

A credit history check examines an individual's financial history and provides insights into their financial responsibility and trustworthiness. This type of background check is relevant for positions involving financial management or access to sensitive financial information. Key points to consider include:

  • Purpose and Scope: A credit history check aims to assess an applicant's financial stability, creditworthiness, and ability to handle financial responsibilities.
  • Compliance with FCRA and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Guidelines: Employers must comply with FCRA and EEOC guidelines to ensure fair and non-discriminatory use of credit information in hiring decisions.
  • Usefulness in Assessing Financial Responsibility: Credit history checks can help identify potential risks related to financial misconduct, including embezzlement, fraud, or irresponsible financial behavior.

Reference Checks

Reference checks involve contacting individuals who can provide insights into an applicant's character, work ethic, and performance. These references may include previous supervisors, colleagues, or clients. Key considerations include:

  • Purpose and Scope: Reference checks aim to gather additional information about a candidate's professional competencies, work style, and interpersonal skills.
  • Obtaining and Assessing References: HR professionals can reach out to references provided by the candidate, conduct phone interviews, or use reference-checking services to collect feedback.
  • Insight into Candidate's Work Performance: Reference checks provide valuable insights into a candidate's past performance, teamwork abilities, and suitability for the job at hand.

How to Do a Background Check?

Conducting a thorough and effective background check involves several essential steps to gather accurate and relevant information. Here is a general outline of the process:

  1. Determine the Scope: Define the scope of the background check based on the position, legal requirements, and organizational policies. Identify the types of checks to be conducted, such as criminal record searches, employment verifications, or credit history checks.
  2. Obtain Consent: Before initiating a background check, obtain written consent from the candidate. Provide them with the necessary disclosure forms that outline the types of checks being conducted and how the information will be used.
  3. Engage a Reliable Background Screening Provider: Choose a reputable background screening provider with expertise in conducting thorough checks and compliance with relevant regulations. Ensure the provider understands your specific requirements and timelines.
  4. Collect Candidate Information: Gather necessary information from the candidate, such as full legal name, date of birth, Social Security number (or equivalent identification numbers for international candidates), and previous addresses. This information will be used to conduct various checks.
  5. Verify Identity: Validate the candidate's identity using reliable sources, such as government-issued identification documents or identity verification services. This ensures that the background check is conducted on the correct individual.
  6. Perform Background Checks: Engage the background screening provider to initiate the specific checks identified in the scope. The provider will utilize their expertise and access various data sources, including public records, databases, educational institutions, and employers, to gather information.
  7. Review and Analyze Results: Once the background check is complete, review the findings carefully. Analyze the information gathered in the context of the position's requirements, legal considerations, and organizational policies.
  8. Make Informed Decisions: Evaluate the background check results alongside other factors, such as interviews, assessments, and qualifications, to make informed hiring decisions. Consider any relevant mitigating circumstances and adhere to legal requirements and non-discriminatory practices.
  9. Communicate with the Candidate: Communicate the outcomes of the background check to the candidate in accordance with applicable laws. Provide copies of the background check report and any required pre-adverse action notices, allowing the candidate an opportunity to review and respond.
  10. Maintain Confidentiality: Treat the background check results and candidate information with utmost confidentiality. Adhere to data protection laws and secure storage and disposal practices to protect candidate privacy.

It is essential to note that the process and specific steps may vary depending on the organization, legal requirements, and the complexity of the background check. Working with a professional background screening provider can help ensure a thorough and compliant process.

How Do I Know If I Passed My Background Check?

Candidates are often curious about the outcome of a background check and whether they "passed" or "failed" it. However, background checks are not typically pass/fail assessments but rather provide employers with information to evaluate a candidate's suitability for a position. Here's what candidates can expect during the background check process:

  1. Notification of Background Check: The employer or background screening provider will typically inform candidates in advance that a background check will be conducted as part of the hiring process. Candidates may be required to provide consent and complete necessary disclosure forms.
  2. Timelines and Communication: Background checks can take several business days or longer to complete, depending on the scope and complexity of the checks involved. The exact duration may vary, and candidates should anticipate that the process takes time. Employers should communicate any significant delays or changes in the timeline to candidates.
  3. Access to Results: Candidates have the right to know the outcome of a background check. In compliance with applicable laws, employers are required to provide candidates with copies of the background check report if it contains adverse information that may impact their candidacy.
  4. Pre-Adverse and Adverse Action Process: If adverse information is discovered during the background check, employers are generally required to follow a specific process before making an adverse decision. This process includes providing candidates with a pre-adverse action notice, a copy of the background check report, and an opportunity to review and dispute the information. Candidates should be given reasonable time to respond and provide additional information if necessary.
  5. Employer Communication: Employers have the responsibility to communicate the final decision based on the background check findings. If adverse information leads to a decision not to hire, employers should inform candidates of the decision and provide an opportunity to discuss or explain the findings, if allowed by law.

It's important for candidates to remember that background checks are conducted to gather information relevant to the position and organizational requirements. While the results may impact the hiring decision, they are not solely pass/fail determinations. Candidates should maintain open communication with employers throughout the process and address any concerns or questions directly.

Best Practices for Conducting Background Checks

Employers must follow best practices to ensure the effective and legally compliant implementation of background checks. By adhering to these practices, HR professionals and hiring managers can streamline their hiring processes while protecting candidates' privacy and maintaining compliance with relevant laws. Here are some essential best practices:

Obtaining Consent and Compliance with Legal Requirements

  • Adhere to FCRA and EEOC guidelines when obtaining consumer reports and conducting background checks.
  • Ensure that candidates provide written consent and receive the necessary disclosures before initiating a background check.
  • Use compliant authorization forms that inform candidates about the purpose and scope of the background check.

Choosing Reliable Background Screening Providers

  • Select reputable and accredited background screening providers with expertise in conducting thorough and accurate checks.
  • Consider factors such as industry experience, compliance with regulations, turnaround time, and customer reviews when choosing a screening provider.
  • Look for providers with relevant certifications, such as the National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS) accreditation.

Ensuring Data Privacy and Security

  • Safeguard personal information collected during the background check process, adhering to data protection laws and industry best practices.
  • Implement secure data handling protocols, including encryption, restricted access, and secure storage.
  • Establish data retention and destruction policies to ensure the secure disposal of personal information after the legally required period.

Adhering to Anti-Discrimination Laws

  • Avoid unlawful discrimination during the background check process by adhering to EEOC guidelines and applicable state and local laws.
  • Implement individualized assessment and consider the nature of the offense, its relevance to the job, and the time elapsed since the offense when making hiring decisions.
  • Provide candidates with the opportunity to provide explanations or evidence of rehabilitation if adverse information is uncovered.

Employee Notification and Transparency

  • Clearly communicate background check policies and procedures to candidates, including the types of checks conducted and their purpose.
  • Address candidate concerns or questions about the background check process, privacy, and the impact of adverse findings on their candidacy.
  • Maintain open and transparent communication throughout the process to build trust and ensure candidates feel respected and informed.

Challenges and Limitations of Background Checks

While background checks provide valuable insights, they also come with certain challenges and limitations that HR professionals and hiring managers should be aware of. Understanding these limitations helps in setting realistic expectations and making informed decisions. Here are some common challenges:

Incomplete or Inaccurate Information

  • Background checks may not always provide a complete picture of an applicant's history, as data availability varies across jurisdictions and information sources.
  • Inaccurate or outdated records can result in misinterpretations or incorrect assessments of a candidate's qualifications or suitability for a position.

Time and Cost Constraints

  • Conducting thorough background checks can be time-consuming, especially for positions with extensive requirements or international candidates.
  • Depending on the scope and complexity of the checks, background screening can incur costs that need to be considered within the hiring budget.

Navigating Different State and Local Laws

  • Background check regulations vary across states and even local jurisdictions, requiring employers to understand and comply with multiple legal frameworks.
  • Keeping track of changes in legislation and ensuring compliance can be challenging, particularly for organizations operating in multiple locations.

EEOC Guidance on Criminal Records and Disparate Impact

  • The EEOC provides guidance on using criminal records in hiring decisions to avoid potential disparate impact or discrimination against protected groups.
  • Balancing the consideration of criminal history with the need to maintain a fair and inclusive hiring process can present challenges for employers.

Balancing Privacy Rights and Organizational Needs

  • Background checks involve the collection and handling of personal information, requiring employers to balance privacy rights with the legitimate needs of the organization.
  • Implementing strong data privacy practices and complying with applicable laws and regulations is essential to protect candidate privacy.

Benefits of Conducting Background Checks

While background checks have their challenges, they offer several significant benefits for HR professionals and hiring managers. These benefits contribute to building a safe, reliable, and high-performing workforce. Here are some key advantages:

Risk Mitigation and Ensuring Workplace Safety

  • Background checks help identify potential risks, such as criminal histories, that could pose a threat to workplace safety and security.
  • By screening applicants, employers can mitigate the risk of negligent hiring and create a safer working environment for employees.

Protecting Company Reputation and Assets

  • Conducting thorough background checks reduces the likelihood of hiring individuals with a history of unethical or fraudulent behavior.
  • Hiring employees with a strong background enhances the organization's reputation and minimizes the risk of reputational damage.

Making Informed Hiring Decisions

  • Background checks provide valuable information that helps employers make informed decisions based on verified qualifications, experience, and character.
  • By assessing a candidate's background, employers can align hiring decisions with organizational goals and find candidates who fit the company culture.

Reducing Employee Turnover and Liability

  • Hiring candidates with verified qualifications and suitability for the job can reduce the likelihood of future performance issues or conflicts.
  • Background checks minimize the risk of employing individuals who may engage in misconduct or exhibit behaviors that could lead to legal liability.

Considerations for International Background Checks

In an increasingly globalized workforce, organizations often encounter candidates with international backgrounds. Conducting background checks on international candidates requires additional considerations and a tailored approach. Here are some key points to consider:

Overview of International Background Screening

  • International background checks involve verifying an applicant's history, criminal records, education, and employment outside the candidate's home country.
  • The process may differ based on country-specific regulations, data availability, and cultural norms.

Data Privacy and Cross-Border Compliance

  • Organizations must navigate the complexities of data privacy laws when transferring personal data across borders.
  • Compliance with international data protection regulations, such as the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), is crucial when conducting international background checks.

Different Legal Systems and Cultural Factors

  • Each country has its own legal systems, cultural nuances, and norms regarding background checks and information sharing.
  • Organizations need to understand and respect the legal and cultural context of the countries where background checks are conducted.

Partnering with Global Screening Providers

  • Partnering with established global screening providers helps organizations navigate the complexities of international background screening.
  • These providers have expertise in country-specific requirements, data sources, and cultural considerations.

Background Checks Legal and Ethical Considerations

When conducting background checks, HR professionals and hiring managers must navigate legal and ethical considerations to protect the rights of candidates and ensure fair and non-discriminatory practices. Key considerations include:

  1. Compliance with Applicable Laws: Employers must adhere to federal, state, and local laws governing background checks, such as the FCRA, EEOC guidelines, and state-specific regulations. It is crucial to understand the specific legal requirements related to background checks in the jurisdiction where the organization operates.
  2. Obtaining Candidate Consent: Employers must obtain written consent from candidates before initiating a background check. Consent should be clear, voluntary, and informed, outlining the specific checks to be conducted and how the information will be used.
  3. Non-Discrimination and Fairness: Background checks should be conducted in a fair and non-discriminatory manner. Employers should not use background check information to unlawfully discriminate against protected classes, such as race, gender, religion, disability, or national origin. The EEOC provides guidance on using background check information and encourages individualized assessments to avoid disparate impact.
  4. Data Privacy and Confidentiality: Employers must handle personal information collected during background checks with the utmost care and protect it from unauthorized access, use, or disclosure. Compliance with data privacy laws, such as the GDPR, is essential, particularly when conducting international background checks.
  5. Adverse Action Process: If the information uncovered in a background check leads to a negative decision or adverse action, employers must follow the appropriate procedures. This includes providing the candidate with a copy of the background check report and a pre-adverse action notice, allowing them an opportunity to review and dispute any inaccurate or incomplete information. Employers should also provide candidates with a reasonable period to respond before making a final adverse decision.
  1. Record Retention and Disposal: Organizations should establish policies for retaining background check records in accordance with applicable laws. It is important to securely store and dispose of these records once they are no longer needed to protect candidate privacy and prevent unauthorized access.
  2. Transparency and Communication: Employers should maintain transparent and open communication with candidates throughout the background check process. Candidates should be informed about the types of checks being conducted, their purpose, and the potential impact of the findings on their candidacy.

By understanding and adhering to these legal and ethical considerations, employers can conduct background checks in a fair and compliant manner, respecting the privacy and rights of candidates while making informed hiring decisions.

Emerging Trends in Background Checks

The landscape of background checks continues to evolve, influenced by technological advancements, changing regulations, and societal shifts. HR professionals and hiring managers should stay informed about these emerging trends to enhance their background screening processes. Here are some noteworthy trends:

Social Media Screening

  • Social media screening involves assessing an applicant's online presence and activities on social networking platforms.
  • It can provide insights into a candidate's professionalism, behavior, and potential cultural fit.

Continuous Monitoring and Post-Hire Checks

  • Continuous monitoring involves ongoing checks on employees' background, such as criminal records, throughout their employment.
  • Post-hire checks can help organizations identify any subsequent criminal activity or changes in qualifications that may affect job performance.

Artificial Intelligence and Predictive Analytics

  • Artificial intelligence (AI) and predictive analytics technologies are increasingly being utilized to enhance background checks.
  • AI-powered algorithms can analyze large datasets to identify patterns, detect anomalies, and predict future behavior.

Ban the Box Legislation and Fair Chance Hiring Initiatives

  • Ban the Box legislation aims to remove questions about criminal history from initial job applications to ensure fair consideration of candidates.
  • Fair chance hiring initiatives promote giving individuals with criminal records a second chance by considering their qualifications before their criminal history.


Thorough and well-executed background checks play a vital role in the hiring process for HR professionals and hiring managers. By understanding the various types of background checks, following best practices, and staying informed about emerging trends, organizations can make informed hiring decisions, protect their reputation, and build a safe and productive workforce. Adhering to legal requirements, respecting candidate privacy, and balancing organizational needs ensure a fair and compliant background check process. Background checks are an essential tool to help organizations hire the right candidates, mitigate risks, and create a foundation for long-term success.

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