Can a Background Check Reveal Past Employers?

Jen David, Editor & Content Writer

13 min read

Orange geometrical pattern

As the job market has become more competitive, it has become even more important to make the right first impression on recruiters and hiring managers. A top-notch resume is more important than ever. Unfortunately, the pressure to find a new job, with the cost of living rising and the number of vacancies falling, may inspire some candidates to be less than honest about their past.

In some instances, job seekers may omit crucial details about prior criminal history. Others may avoid mentioning some previous jobs and employment background – especially if they left on bad terms. Some may lie about why they left those jobs. There are many reasons that it might seem tempting to slip a little white lie onto your resume.

Many candidates simply believe that employers will never discover the truth. However, employee background checks may uncover undisclosed details and that could cost you a job. But can a background check reveal past employers?

In this post, we’ll answer that and other frequently asked questions about background checks. Read on to discover:

  • Why are background checks carried out?

  • Can an employer find out where I worked using employee background checks?

  • What do background checks show about employment history?

  • What’s included in a background check?

  • What can prior employers say about me?

  • What if I forgot to list a job?

  • Can I conduct a background check on myself?

  • What if the background check shows something negative?

  • What if there’s an error on my background check?

  • How can I mitigate a negative report?

Why are background checks carried out?

Employers want to know that the person they are hiring is indeed who they say they are and is qualified to carry out the tasks expected of them in their new role. After all, anyone can say they have experience and can do the job well – how can an employer be sure? It’s not uncommon for people to lie on their resumes or during interviews! Hiring and training new staff is a costly process, so the hiring manager needs to be sure they’re making the right decision for the business. Background checks play an important role in that verification process.

How do background checks verify employment history?

There are two main ways that an employer can conduct a background check. They can either carry out a basic check themselves, or they can outsource the check to a background checking agency. The latter is likely to produce a more comprehensive check which will cover your employment history and multiple other aspects of your background. Your personal details, such as social security number and date of birth, can be used to access public records databases and personal contact can be made with previous employers and academic institutions.

How can a background check reveal past employers?

In a nutshell, a simple background check won’t provide the hiring manager with a list of your previous employers. People leave jobs off their resumes all the time. As long as there’s no obvious unexplained gap on your resume, it’s unlikely that a potential employer will ever find out about these roles. Even if they do, it may not cause a problem if you have a perfectly valid reason for leaving it off – maybe it was a long time ago, or you only stayed for a very short period of time, or it’s not relevant to your target role.

What a background check will flag, however, is the dates that you were employed in each role you’ve listed on your resume. That means that if you’ve been less than truthful about your dates of employment in a particular job, you’re likely to get found out. When potential employers ask for references from previous managers about your time with the company, as part of their background check, employment dates are one of the key pieces of information that will be shared.

The takeaway here is to always be honest about your employment history on your resume. While it’s fine to eliminate certain roles, you need to be ready with a truthful explanation of any gaps.

Top Tip: A more constructive way to handle less important roles on your resume is to list everything, no matter how short-term or irrelevant, but to dedicate considerably less space to those roles than to the ones you’d like the employer to focus on.

*CURRENT GRAPHIC – Employee background checks are commonly used to verify previous job history and resume omissions could result in your application being rejected.*

What do background checks show about employment history?

Most background check investigations certainly check to see that you did work for the most recent companies you listed on your resume. In some states, laws may prevent employers from asking about anything more than the basic details of your previous employment. For instance, a prospective employer can verify your start and end dates, job title, and responsibilities. They may also confirm your reason for leaving.

 In some jurisdictions, background checks can also verify job performance and ask about workplace concerns and other relevant issues. Such checks are permissible under federal law, which does not restrict the types of questions employers can ask about your prior work.

What’s included in a background check?

In addition to verifying your employment history, employers may also verify other details, such as:

  • That you have the academic qualifications, certifications, and accreditations that you claim

  • That you have no outstanding criminal convictions

  • That you have a clean financial record

  • That you’re medically fit to perform the role, via a medical records check

  • That you’re not creating inappropriate social media posts that have the potential to damage the company’s reputation

  • That you have a clean driving record if driving is a requisite of the role

  • Sometimes drug and alcohol checks will be required too

The candidate must be told that a background check will be conducted and needs to give their consent. You’ll be entitled to a copy of the final report, so if anything untoward is discovered that prevents you from getting the job you can take mitigating action.

What can prior employers say about me?

In most instances, poor reviews from previous employers need not be a worry. Since many employers want to avoid potential legal problems, they will only provide the most basic details about your employment, such as job titles and dates of employment. Employers must be fair and accurate and state only the truth.

Sometimes, job candidates are concerned that previous managers will give them poor references during employee background checks. If that’s a concern for you, consider giving the name of someone else in the company. For example, if you had a bad relationship with your direct line manager but got on well with their superior, you can give the superior’s name as your reference instead.

 You should also be proactive about your endorsements. Actively encourage prior employers to provide referrals for you that you can pass on to the hiring manager. That can help to drown out any bad reviews you might receive. 

What if I forgot to list a job?

One common problem can occur when job seekers forget to list jobs on their resumes. This could raise red flags if a gap is noticed or if the dates don’t line up with the dates received during the background check. In that case, all you can do is hold your hands up and explain that you forgot to list a job. Include the reason you may have forgotten to list it – for example maybe it was just a short-term position that you took to cover the bills between other longer-term contracts.

 To avoid this happening, it’s worth investing time in your resume, not just listing your roles and responsibilities but also checking and double-checking the dates you’ve included. Working with a professional resume writer can also help here – they’ll ask about any gaps and other red flags that an employer may notice and ensure they’re addressed positively, at an early stage.

Can I conduct a background check on myself?

One way to avoid potential problems or omissions is to conduct your own background check. This is also a great way to accurately recreate your employment history on your resume. It enables you to avoid inadvertent job omissions and unintentional deception. There are several ways to recreate your work history to ensure its accuracy:

  • Social Security: The Social Security Administration can provide a complete work history when you submit a Request for Social Security Earnings Information. You’ll have to pay a small fee, but will obtain key information about prior employer names, addresses, employment dates, and salary.

  • Tax returns: This option can provide some details about employers and wages but won’t help you to identify start or end dates for your previous jobs.

  • LinkedIn: If you keep your LinkedIn profile up to date (and you should!), you can cross-reference your resume with your LinkedIn profile. It’s important that they tell the same story.

While you’re checking your work history, you may also like to check:

  • Social media: Conduct an audit of all your social media accounts, going back several years, and delete any posts that you wouldn’t want a prospective employer to see. Additionally, review your privacy settings so that your accounts aren’t publicly viewable.

  • Credit report: You can access your credit report, without charge, via a national credit union.

 If it’s been a while since you’ve applied for a job, it may be wise to do this type of comprehensive review. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.

What happens if the background check shows something negative?

Not all reg flags will automatically disqualify you from a job, so a negative report may not be the disaster you think it is. However, most employers will have a hard line about what they will and won’t accept, so you need to be prepared to miss out on this opportunity if your background check highlights an issue.

If you’re worried that a background check may flag something negative that will rule you out of consideration for a role, you have two options. Firstly, you could pre-empt the issue on your resume or in an interview, providing a truthful and comprehensive explanation that allays concerns before they’re even raised. If you choose this option, remember that it’s never a good look to bad-mouth previous employers or managers.

The second option is to stay quiet, hoping that whatever you fear isn’t picked up in a background check or, if it is, it isn’t a big enough issue to disqualify you from the role. That’s fine if you get away with it, but again you need to be prepared with a credible reason if the background check is more comprehensive than you’d hoped. Explain the situation honestly, including an explanation of why the issue won’t affect your ability to do the job at hand.

What if there’s an error on my background check?

You’re entitled to a copy of your background check, so start by requesting that. If there’s an error, there are various steps you can take:

  • Confirm that the check has been run on the right person – if you have a relatively common name, it’s possible that it’s not actually your background check the employer is looking at

  • Contact previous employers and ask their HR department to correct any errors in their records – e.g. start and end dates or job titles

  • Ensure that expired convictions are removed from your record

  • Dispute errors that might reduce your credit score and request that they be removed from your record

If you manage to get incorrect information corrected, you can request that the hiring company conduct a new background check on you.

How can I mitigate a negative report?

A negative background check doesn’t automatically disqualify you from a job. For example, if you have a poor credit history but the role you’ve applied for doesn’t involve any sort of financial responsibility, you’ll probably be fine. However, if you’re rejected from a role and there’s no mistake in the report, try taking these steps:

  • Speak with the potential employer – explain why the issue they’ve identified won’t affect your ability to perform well in the role. You never know, they may have been impressed enough with your interview to overlook a very minor blip.

  • If you’ve made it as far as the background check stage, you’ve obviously impressed the hiring manager. You may not be suitable for the role you applied for, but you can ask if they have any other vacancies that might be more appropriate.

  • Keep applying for jobs – just because one company has turned down your application, it doesn’t mean another will. Focus in particular on roles where the negative issue on your background report won’t matter.

What happens next if my background check is clear?

Assuming the employer is happy with the results of your background check, things are looking good for you! A background check costs time and money, so it’s usually something that happens in the later stages of the recruitment process. That means you’ve impressed the hiring manager and made it to the final hurdle! While it’s still too early to say that you’ve definitively got the job – they may have run background checks on their final few candidates – your chances are certainly looking good. There’s no time to sit back and relax though – you need to brush up on your negotiating skills, so that as soon as there’s an offer on the table you’re able to secure the best possible remuneration package.

Honesty is the best policy

We’ve looked in detail at the question “Can a background check reveal past employers?” and the short answer is no… but there’s a plethora of issues to consider if you’re concerned that your pre-employment verification may not come back as sparkling clean as you’d hope.

As a result, you should always strive to be as honest and accurate as you can when you create your resume. That honesty will serve you well and help to avoid embarrassment and unnecessary rejection as you try to land a job.

Why not submit your resume for a free resume review now, to identify and rectify any red flags and make sure your next job application gets off on the right foot?

 Good luck with your job search!

Recommended reading:

Written by

Jen David, Editor & Content Writer, Jen David, Editor & Content Writer

Jen David has been writing CVs since 2010 and is the founder of CV Shed. She has worked with clients in numerous industries and at all stages of their careers, from students through to senior executives of global businesses. She loves producing polished, focused CVs that appeal to both human recruiters and applicant tracking systems, enabling her clients to take the next step in their careers. Jen has written and edited numerous articles for publication on industry-leading job boards.

Person working on laptop outside. ZipJob Branded.

Our resume services get results.

We’ve helped change over 30,000 careers.