You smashed the interview and you’re feeling pretty confident. Any minute now, the phone will surely ring and you’ll be receiving the news you’ve been hoping for. But wait! The company has started carrying out background checks. What does that mean?! Is it a good sign? Are you about to be hired? What should you expect?
Don’t worry. Take a deep breath and relax - we have you covered. In this article, we’ll explore what a background check is, how long they take to complete, how you can prepare, what you can expect and, most importantly, whether you can write a gleeful resignation letter to your boss. We’ll also discuss what you can do should you fail a pre-employment background check.
What is a background check?
Imagine you have a new baby and are looking for a babysitter. Do you just hand the baby to the first stranger you pass on the street? Of course not! You’d want to make sure that they knew how to look after a baby, understood how to meet their needs, and were willing to follow your instructions.
It’s basically the same when you apply for a new position. You’re essentially a stranger to the business - they don’t want to give the job to someone who will waltz in to cause havoc, lose them money, and upset their customers. The company, and your potential new manager, need to know that you’re equipped to do the job. Do you have the right skills, attitude, education and experience? That’s where a background check for employment comes in. The business will take steps to look into your past to make sure that you are who you say you are, can do what you claim to do, and have a good work ethic.
So, although it may be a frustrating period as you wait to hear the outcome of your application, it’s understandable that the company wants to protect its reputation and profits. Hiring is a costly process - but hiring the wrong person is even more costly, so it’s important to get it right.
What does a background check show?
Most of the time, a background check is nothing to fear. By this stage, the employer has likely made their decision on their ideal candidate and is hoping that nothing comes up in the background check of a person that will change their mind. They don’t want to go back to the drawing board any more than you do.
There are various types of background checks, so let’s look into some of the most common:
1. Past employment
An employer may check to verify that the experience on your resume matches your employment history records. That includes making sure that the dates, company names, and job titles listed on your resume are accurate. They can do this by contacting past employers. Often, asking for the details of former managers (or referees) is a part of the application process. If you’re asked to supply reference details, you can be sure that your references will be contacted as part of the background check.
The format of reference background checks can vary. They can be anything from a quick phone call to a tick-box questionnaire or a free-form letter. Whatever the format, it’s important that you select references who you know will speak highly of you. Ideally, you’ll be able to show them the job advert beforehand, or brief them on the requirements of the role, so that they can tailor their feedback to precisely what the company wants to hear.
Many job seekers "stretch" their employment history dates to avoid having gaps on their resumes. This isn't a good idea, because if the background check reveals something different in your work history then employers may see that as a red flag and reject your application. At best, it shows that you can’t record information accurately. At worst, it calls your integrity into question. Either of those options will cause warning sirens to go off in the employer’s head! Make life easier by sticking to the truth, and nothing but the truth, on your resume.
During the employment screening, the employer may also seek to verify the qualifications you’ve claimed on your resume. At its most basic level, this check may simply consist of requesting copies of the certificates you’ve earned. This sometimes forms part of the application process, and is in no way an indication of application success. However, if they’re asking for your academic credentials following an interview, you may start to get your hopes up!
Lying about your education is a serious offense, so ensure that the education section of your resume is accurate and up to date. If you graduated some time ago, you may want to start rummaging around the house for those long-forgotten certificates, just in case! Luckily, in many roles experience can outweigh qualifications, so if you’re firmly established in your career this step may never happen.
3. Criminal history record
This is straightforward: most employers will check your criminal record before making an offer. It wouldn’t make sense to offer a job in a bank to someone convicted of theft or fraud, nor would it be wise to offer a school job to someone with a record of child abuse. Many employers have such requirements to protect themselves. These checks are perfectly understandable and are the company’s way of safeguarding its business interests, clients, and employees.
They will be checking records for such crimes as:
Fraud or embezzlement
However, not all convictions are reportable during these checks. The employer won’t have access to any time-sensitive convictions and accessibility to records varies by state.
If you do have a conviction, it may not necessarily harm your chances of securing the role. For example, stealing a chocolate bar as a grubby-faced youth won’t prevent you from becoming an excellent Ambulance Technician in adulthood.
4. Credit report history
The employer may also check your credit history if the position will allow you to have any sort of financial authority.
According to the FTC, there are certain things that employers are not allowed to check for when conducting a background screening on a candidate, which include:
Bankruptcies after 10 years
Civil suits, civil judgments, and arrest records after seven years from the date of entry
Paid tax liens after seven years
Accounts placed for collection after seven years
Any other negative information (except criminal convictions) after seven years
This is a less common check that often depends on the authority, seniority, sensitivity and responsibilities of the role. You may be able to obtain a copy of your credit report in advance, which will give you the opportunity to correct any errors it contains if that’s a particular concern to you.
5. Social media check
The new kid on the block when it comes to background checks is social media. Yes, employers have wised up to the plethora of personal information that we post online and regularly scour sites to check whether our personal values align with those that the business aims to promote.
If you’re applying for jobs, now is a GREAT time to conduct a thorough review of your social media accounts and to remove anything that shows you in a less-than-glowing light. While you’re allowed to let your hair down, there are some posts that are guaranteed to raise red flags with employers. Those include posts showing drug taking, expounding racist views, and bad-mouthing former employers, among others. The general rule here is that if you’d feel uncomfortable with your interviewer and CEO seeing it (or even your granny!), delete it.
If you really don’t want to trawl back through thousands of posts, the least you can do is to review your privacy settings and lock down everything away from the beady eyes of recruiters. That means on sites you no longer use, too.
Your LinkedIn account should always be visible when you’re job hunting though - just make sure that 100% of your posts are 100% professional. Don’t forget to keep posting, liking, commenting, sharing, and networking on this site throughout your job search, too.
Employers may also conduct other types of background checks, depending on the requirements of the role. For example, a Delivery Driver may need to have their driving license checked for validity and endorsements. Other roles may require drugs checks, medical checks, or security checks.
For your first job, you won’t be able to provide details of past employers. In that case, the company may wish to contact someone else who can vouch for your character. That could be a tutor, someone of good standing within the community, or someone else who has known you for a long time - but family won’t count!
What can employers NOT check?
There are certain protected characteristics that employers are not allowed to check or base their decisions on. These are the sort of characteristics that have no impact at all on your ability to do a job - for example, race, ethnicity, age, disability, religion, sexual preference, union involvement, and several other personal attributes. Other checks are time sensitive - employers are only able to screen candidates’ backgrounds within a certain timeframe for certain verifications.
How can you prepare for a background check?
In all honesty, there’s very little you can do to prepare for a background check beyond:
Presenting an accurate and honest resume
Cleaning up your social media
Speaking to your references to warn them of incoming requests
Digging up any documentation that may be requested
You shouldn’t have to pay for a background check, and in fact some states mandate that employers must pay.
Usually, the background checks are just a formality and you shouldn’t have any trouble sailing through them. If you don’t, there’s probably a good reason. If you can find out what it is, you’ll be in a good position to mitigate the problem with any future job applications.
Common reasons for failing background checks
Background checks can throw up red flags for a number of reasons. Top employer concerns include:
Catching an untruth on your resume - which calls your integrity into question
A criminal record - which could prove costly for the employer further down the line
A poor credit history - which could affect decision-making in financial roles
Bad references - which cast doubt on your ability to do the job well or integrate with the team
Any of these could result in a swift change of heart about offering you the job.
Employers need your permission to run a background check and you’re within your rights to refuse - but don’t expect the employer to take your application any further. This is their security blanket, after all.
What should I do if I fail a background check?
If you do happen to fail a background check, contact the employer. They have a legal duty to share the information they received about you, so that you can find out what went wrong. You can contact the Consumer Reporting Agency to request that any inaccuracies be corrected.
If there was no mistake, however, all is not lost. Just because there’s a blemish on your record doesn’t mean you’ll never get a job. One employer may reject you, but every company has different standards, conducts different checks, and uses different agencies to conduct those checks. That means that there are plenty of other opportunities for employment out there, so keep submitting those applications and, in the meantime, do all you can to make sure that your record is clean next time.
Does a background check mean you have the job?
A background check isn’t a guarantee that you have the job, but it’s certainly a strong indication that the company is interested in your application and that you may receive an offer.
A background check usually comes at the very end of the hiring process. Employers will typically conduct a background check before they make that good news call and you can break out the champagne.
Bear in mind, though, that they may be conducting a background check on a handful of candidates that they're considering hiring. It's impossible to know if you're the only one they're considering - or if there are several other job contenders they're running a background check on too. So, although it’s a good sign, it’s not over until you have that job offer in hand.
How long does a background check take?
It's impossible to give an exact time frame, as every employer differs, but you should hear something within a week or two following a background check.
It can take anywhere from two to five days to conduct an employment background check. Don’t despair if you don’t hear anything within this timeframe though - there could be other factors at play. Maybe it’s a holiday period, or information is needed from another state (or country), or someone somewhere just isn’t being as efficient or as accurate as they could be.
The hiring manager will then usually need a few days to make a final decision or put together an offer, when the checks are completed. Waiting can be nerve-wracking, but you’re nearly at the finish line!
Don't just wait for the offer
Although employment background checks are a good sign that you're being seriously considered for the job, don't just sit back and wait. Keep applying to other positions - just in case.
A background check is certainly a good sign that you may get hired - but it doesn't mean your job search is over. Keep on applying to other positions you’re qualified for and cross your fingers that the background check goes smoothly. Hopefully, the news you’re waiting for is just around the corner!
If you’re not making it as far as a background check, why not submit your resume for a free review to see if that’s the problem? An expert pair of eyes on your document will help to fine tune it so that it helps you land your dream job.
Good luck with your job search!
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.