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Fears and Facts About Background Checks

Fears and Facts About Background Checks

If you’ve ever applied for a job, you’ve probably agreed to some kind of background inquiry. The most common inquiry is the reference check, which involves calling previous employers to confirm that your resume is accurate.

Many jobs, including government jobs and finance jobs or those that involve access to sensitive information, require additional background checks. These may include a credit check and a criminal background check, and may be conducted by a third party hired by the employer.

Here’s the best news: If an employer is checking up on you, it means you’re really in the running for the job. But could anything in your past come back to haunt you? Here are some typical fears of job seekers -- and the reality.

Fear: Poor credit will disqualify me.

Probably not. Less than 50 percent of companies run credit checks on job seekers, and eight states severely limit access to credit information, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). If you’re applying for a job that involves handling funds, you’re likely to face a credit check. For other jobs, it’s less likely.

When employers do check credit, they typically consider only the last five to seven years, and if something negative comes up they must provide you with a copy of your credit report and give you a reasonable chance to explain it, says Elizabeth Bille, SHRM associate general counsel. “Even if your credit is terrible, you’ll probably have ample opportunity to explain the circumstances,” she says.

Fear: That speeding ticket is going to come back to haunt me.

Unlikely. First, criminal background checks are more typically run on candidates for government jobs and on those who might have access to children, money or sensitive data. Second, employers are supposed to rule out a candidate with a criminal record only when there is a business justification for doing so. In other words, speeding tickets would likely disqualify you from being a bus driver, but not from being a computer programmer.

Fear: They will learn about my health status, political affiliation, sexuality, religion or family status.

That’s possible, but unlikely. “The truth is, employers take great pains not to learn about your personal information because of the legal exposure it brings,” says Bille. “It’s illegal in every state to inquire into your health status and medical records for employment purposes, for example.”

However, even though employers are legally barred from asking about your personal life, they can still learn about it through publicly available information, such as your social media profiles. “A company can use any information about you that’s publicly available to influence their hiring decision, so it’s important to be aware of your public profile,” Bille tells

Even so, you may not have much to fear. Only 18 percent of companies say they look at social media sites to screen job candidates, according to a 2011 SHRM survey. And employers can’t access those sites with your password due to a federal law called the Stored Communications Act that prohibits anyone from gaining unauthorized access.

Fear: They’ll find out I filed a workers’ comp claim or was on FMLA.

Not likely. Out of fear of legal action, an employer would probably not dig into your past to learn whether you claimed a work-related injury or were on family or medical leave, Bille says. “Most employers know that the EEOC says that if they make a decision based on these things, they could be subject to an unlawful retaliation lawsuit,” she says.

Fear: An old boss or coworker might say negative things about me.

This is a possibility. A potential employer will sometimes seek to learn about your work habits and job performance, and it’s not illegal to give this information, says Jeff Shane, executive vice president of Allison & Taylor, a professional reference-checking and employment-verification company based in Rochester, Michigan.

“Most companies have a policy of not giving more than the basic information to discourage any possible legal repercussions,” Shane tells “HR will almost always give pat answers, such as dates, titles, salary and length of employment, but an intrepid hiring manager can keep calling people until they get details on what kind of an employee you were. And if past supervisors or coworkers trash you, you probably won’t even learn about it. The employer you want to work for won’t tell you why they won’t hire you.”

How to Mitigate Possibly Damaging Information

If you suspect there’s something in your background that really could hurt your chances for employment, there are several ways to do damage control.
  • Agree to Let Potential Employers Check References: Refusing to do so is a red flag that you have something to hide. Experts say denying access to your background information is probably more of a disqualifier for a job than any information the employer might find.
  • Check Yourself Out: Review your social media profiles. Delete any questionable material if you can and/or tighten your privacy settings.

    Contact past bosses and coworkers to see what they really thought of you or to mend some proverbial fences. You might also consider hiring a reference-checking company to do a background check on you before you apply for a job. You can learn what might be a mark on your record and have a chance to clear up any inaccurate information.
  • Be Honest: If there is something damaging in your record, be candid about it and have a good explanation. “Explain potential problems, like a past criminal record or bad credit, so there won’t be any surprises later,” Bille says. “In some cases a good explanation can mitigate something negative on your record. Employers are usually careful to weigh circumstances and talk to you more about something potentially negative.”
  • Look at Your State’s Laws: States often have more specific laws than the federal government in determining what employers can’t ask.

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