Don’t Panic! Background Screening Explained

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dont panic

You did it. You nailed the interview—or many interviews. You gave them your A-game and they gave you an offer. Nice! And as almost an aside, the recruiter says, “The offer is contingent on a background check, but I don’t anticipate any problems.”

“Ok, yeah, sure,” you say, nonchalantly. But inside, you panic. For whatever reason, you start to worry. The worry may grow to fear and then you’re in full-blown freak out mode, searching the Internet for answers for every possible scenario. You’re asking complete strangers online, “What happens now?” “What if they find XYZ?” “What exactly are they looking for?” And even, “I totally lied on my application! Am I doomed?!”

Deep breaths, friend. We have some answers for you.

The background screening process has many pieces. As you moved through the interview process, at some point (generally after an offer) you were provided with a disclosure that a background check is going to be requested by your prospective employer, and you signed an authorization, permitting your future employer to look into specific areas of your life via a third-party consumer reporting agency (CRA). The employer decides what types of background checks will be done, which are generally consistent by position, and the employer’s assessment of your background screening will be entirely different than those reviewed for another candidate.

Video: Everything You Wanted to Know About Background Checks

In the U.S., the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) has strict guidelines about how an employer through a CRA, or a background check company, can request a background check. The FCRA and state laws also provide consumers’ rights as they pertain to information contained in their criminal, and credit background reports in general.

That’s the short answer. Now let’s take a look at these things piece by piece.

It’s not like TV

First, it’s important to understand that there isn’t one source of information about you. Background checks aren’t like those TV crime dramas where the gal with swift computer skills sitting in a dark room can pull up everything about you in the blink of an eye. CRAs source information through various means—calling employers and universities, looking up public records, and even, when required by certain jurisdictions, physically going to courthouses to retrieve information. This process is usually completed in a few days, but can sometimes take two weeks or more and is contingent on returned phone calls, a court’s public record computer systems functioning properly, holidays, even government shut-downs. If you’ve lived, worked or gone to school in multiple states or overseas, the process can take longer.

Understandably, both you and your future employer are anxious to get the results. The CRA works as quickly as possible to gather all the requested information in the shortest time possible keeping in mind that that the information has to be matched to you and complete and up to date to be reported. To learn more about how long a background check should take, take a look at this fun video.

Here’s what they look at:

Based on HireRight’s 2018 Benchmark Report which surveyed over 6,000 HR professionals, the most popular types of background checks are criminal or other public records searches, verifications of previous employment and/or references, identity, education and motor vehicle records. If your job will be in banking, finance or any position where you’ll be handling money, the employer may have the CRA report your credit history. You may also be screened for drug and alcohol use. What the CRA checks is up to the employer, so that list may vary.

  • Employment Verification
    With your consent, your future employer can contact past employers. A CRA will contact the employers listed on your resume or application to verify the dates you worked and the positions you held. They may also contact references you have provided to ascertain performance and character.
    Helpful tip: Having past paystubs and/or W-2s handy will speed along the screening in the event the CRA is unable to reach your former employer or the organization is no longer in business. In most cases, you’re welcome to redact your compensation.
  • Education/Licenses
    Like verifying past employment, the CRA will contact the educational or licensing institutions you have listed to verify your course of study and degrees earned. They will also research any professional licenses to ensure that they are all up to date, provided your prospective employer finds that they are necessary for the position.
    Note that many educational institutions do not respond directly to requests for information. Instead, they subscribe to an educational reporting provider. These providers verify student records, transcripts and degrees and protect against bogus information supplied by “diploma mills.”
    Helpful tip: Just like verifying employment, you might be asked to provide a copy of your transcript, certificate or degree.
  • Criminal Record
    The CRA may search for criminal records from local, regional and federal authorities. How far back in history they go is determined by the FCRA or the state; The FCRA and several states restrict the reporting of convictions that occurred more than seven years ago unless certain exceptions are met.
    Helpful tip: If asked by your prospective employer it’s best to be honest and disclose up front any criminal convictions on your record. Giving your future employer a heads up about what they might find and the context of your criminal history can help them as they decide what to do with that information. Chances are good they will appreciate your transparency.
  • Identity
    The identity search verifies that you have a validly issued ID and that your name is assigned to that ID number. The search is performed through various sources, depending on the country where your ID was issued. You may be asked to provide your driver license or passport.
  • Motor Vehicle Record
    Whether you will drive a company car, a delivery vehicle or a long-haul truck, if your role involves driving, your future employer will likely check your motor vehicle record (MVR). This will be necessary in order for them to insure you in their vehicles.
    Helpful tip: In the same vein of criminal convictions, it’s best to have a discussion with your prospective employer and disclose anything on your MVR that might raise a red flag. Parking tickets won’t come up, but infractions like speeding or driving related crimes like DUI will.
  • Drug Use
    If your future employer requests a drug screen, you will go to a collection site (a clinic or a lab) and provide a sample (urine, saliva or hair). The drugs the lab will screen for are dictated by your future employer. Many states have legalized marijuana, either medicinally or recreationally, but are not consistent regarding an employer’s need to accommodate marijuana use so depending on your state and your prospective employer, that may or may not be an issue. Illicit/street drugs will show up. Prescribed medication will as well. If you are asked about a doctor-prescribed medication, you need not disclose your medical history, but you may need to provide proof of a prescription from your medical professional. HireRight’s 2018 Benchmark Survey asked about applicant excuses for failing a drug screen. If you want a good laugh, check out the answers here and here.

Pants on fire:

HireRight’s recent Benchmark Survey revealed that a whopping 84% of employers found a lie or misrepresentation on a resume or job application—at all levels of the organization. That’s a lot. Whether it’s mistakenly listing incorrect employment dates or completely fabricating a degree, your future employer will likely discover it. What to do?

Come clean. (You may be sensing a theme here.) Just be up front about it. If you worked someplace a decade ago and accidentally listed the duration of employment as a year and it was really six months, explain the honest mistake to your recruiter. Life is long and sometimes our memories aren’t that accurate. These things happen. It may not adversely impact your offer.

If there are things on your resume that are out-right fiction, as painful as it may be, consider telling the truth. The employer will find out anyway. Belated honesty may cost you this particular opportunity. Or, if, for example, you don’t have a degree but you have significant relevant experience, the recruiter may be able to work with that.

This could be a good time to adjust your resume accordingly to avoid running into inaccuracies in the future.

And what if…?

You can request a copy of your background report. If an employer finds misrepresentations or negative elements in your background check, it’s up to your future employer to decide what to do with that information. The CRA does not decide whether you are hired, nor does it make recommendations. If the negative aspects of your report do indeed impact your offer, your prospective employer has a legal obligation to inform you of the potentially adverse action and give you the opportunity to dispute the accuracy or completeness of the findings directly with the CRA. Within 30 days, the CRA will then investigate the disputed information with the source and will notify you of the results. Should you still be unsatisfied, you have the option to include a brief statement to rebut the findings.

For a complete breakdown of each party’s obligations and your rights in the background screening process, read the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).

It’s understandable that the time during your background screening can feel like limbo. But armed with proper information, you can know that what is found is done so fairly, accurately and with your best interest in mind.

Now, get out there and get that job!

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HireRight is a leading provider of on-demand employment background checks, drug and health screening, and electronic Form I-9 and E-Verify solutions that help employers automate, manage and control background screening and related programs.

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