What You Need to Know About Employment Background Checks

When an interviewer tells you, “Everything looks good. We’ll just need to run a background check,” it’s normal for your heart to start pounding–even if you’re pretty confident your background check is clean.

Understanding the reasons and scope of background checks should put your mind to rest. In this post, I’ll be answering some of the most frequently asked questions about background checks.

Q: What kind of information are companies looking for?

A: Employers are, understandably, trying to protect themselves from thieves, chronic liars, people who are wanted by the police, or have drug, alcohol or anger management problems, are unstable in some other way, or who blatantly and repeatedly flaunt the law. So, yes, they are looking for red flags like these when they run a background check.

Employers are also checking your background to see if there are any discrepancies with your resume. That’s one reason (of many) why your resume needs to be accurate and truthful.

Typically, an employer will run a 10-year criminal history check that shows if you have been convicted of any felony or misdemeanor charges, and they do a civil history check that shows if you were ever a plaintiff or defendant in a civil case. They might also look at your driving record, Social Security history, and credit history. Most employers will also verify your previous employment, references, and education. Many employers also review your social media accounts for content they may deem to be inappropriate.

Quick Tip

Be confident. Let the interviewer know you have nothing to hide. There’s always the possibility that some false or misleading facts are part of your reports, so asking for honesty on the part of the employer will encourage candor, accuracy, and fairness.

Q: Do I always know when a company is going to check my record?

A: Applying for a job almost always includes giving permission to research your past. When this will happen can depend on the records the employer is checking. No company can conduct a check of your credit history, your Social Security records, employment history, or education records without your permission. You have to sign a release.

Employers have to jump through hoops to access medical and military service records. But records that are public information, such court records and DMV history, can be accessed without your consent.

If you are turned down as a result of information revealed in a background check, federal law says that the company must tell you that.

Q: Does every company do a background check?

A: Because background checks cost money, not every company runs a background check on every potential candidate. That said, as of 2021, 72% of companies depend on background checks to help screen applicants. Larger companies will run a background check, and financial institutions usually do as well. If you’ll be operating machinery or driving company vehicles, you can expect a drug test and a check of your driving record. In addition, executives are also frequently screened for drugs. If you’ll be working with at-risk people, the elderly, or children, expect a thorough background check.

Q: Why do companies check Social Security data?

A: Companies look at Social Security data to see where you have lived for the past seven years, and if you have had name changes. It’s part of checking to see how your resume lines up with official records.

Quick Tip

Never say no when asked for permission to do a background check. It’s a deal breaker.

Q: I don’t have a stellar credit score. Is this something to I should worry about?

A: It’s common for people to have a low credit score and still be responsible about money. Maybe they haven’t worked on their credit history to correct past mistakes or they went through divorce, relocation, sickness, or youthful overindulgence in credit. Employers know how to read all the figures in a credit history. They look for indicators of ongoing financial instability that represent a risk to them on some level.

Quick Tip

Order a copy of your credit report from all three reporting agencies and look for inaccuracies. Make sure you haven’t unknowingly become a victim of identity theft. Also, if there are black marks in your credit history, you can work to minimize them by attaching letters of explanation.

Q: Does every job I’ve ever had show up on an employment background check? Some jobs I’ve had I wish would go away!

A: An employment search can include all the companies you’ve worked for, your titles, and dates of employment. Don’t be too quick to disqualify any job. There’s usually a way to cast it in a positive way on your resume.

If a job you chose to leave off your resume appears on an employment check, be ready to have a reasonable explanation for why you chose to omit it from your resume (“It was so long ago,” or “I was only there for two months before I went back to school,” etc.).

If you are worried about what a former boss says about you, don’t be. Most businesspeople are reluctant to offer anything beyond dates of employment, final salary, and other limited facts. They know that legal action can be taken against them if they give misleading references.

Quick Tip

You can ask a former employer for a copy of your records and also ask about its policy about the release of personnel records.

Q: Where do employers go for information and who actually does the research?

A: Small companies might use an online data broker, or a private investigator, or do their own limited computer search of public records. Larger corporations that hire lots of people will usually have an established relationship with a professional background checking agency.

Q: What kinds of questions will background checking companies ask my references?

A: Questions asked will focus on job performance, not on personal or private information. And employers rarely contact anyone other than the references you list.

Don’t ignore what your social media profiles looks like. If you’ve posted content in the past that could damage your reputation, delete that content. You may also need to contact your connections and ask them to remove and/or untag you from questionable posts.


Don’t get stressed about what a background check will reveal. The most common reasons for not passing a background check are errors of omission, misstatements of facts, and financial and legal problems. Employers aren’t interested in the distant past. They will judge your ability to perform a particular job today.

Of the utmost importance: make sure your resume tells the truth and presents all of your most marketable skills. When you work with my team, we’ll create a resume that reflects you at your best. Honest.

Author: Mir Garvy

I’ve written resumes for 2,000+ job seekers just like you—and helped my clients land jobs with companies like Amazon, SAS, Google, Duke University, Travelocity, Cisco Systems, GlaxoSmithKline, Expedia, and IBM.