March 30, 2009

How Background Checks Can Affect Your Job Chances

Let’s say you just got back from a stellar interview. You made the perfect impression.

Knocked the interview questions out of the park. In short: You killed it, you’re sure of it. The only thing standing between you and the job of your dreams, now, is the dreaded background check.

According to some estimates, as many as 40% of job applicants lie or exaggerate about their background on job applications or resumes. That sobering statistic, combined with a rise in on-the-job violence and security concerns in the post 9-11 era, have convinced 9 out of 10 employers that they need to run detailed background checks before making a job offer.

Gone are the days of a half-hearted verification of your employment and education history. Today, your credit history, driving record, court records, criminal records and a very detailed employment history are all open to investigation. It used to be that just federal and state jobs and military assignments required heavy-duty background checks, but no more. In fact, many employers are stepping up their checks to include conversations with neighbors, former co-workers and others to learn whether or not you are a safe bet.

Worried that a less-than-squeaky-clean credit report or some late-night college indiscretions might tank your chances with the job of your dreams? Here are some facts that will hopefully calm your nerves:

Do they need permission to run a background check?
Yes. An employer can’t run a background or pull a credit report without your consent. Most likely, you will be asked to sign some kind of permission form in your application packet or during your intake paperwork. If the employer wants to talk to people face-to-face or look at your medical records, they need an additional level of permission — what’s known as an investigative consumer report.

What information can they see… and what will it tell them?
Once employers have your consent, they have broad latitude in terms of what information they can gather. Most employers hire screening firms to do the work for them and these firms typically can access your:

* Vehicle registration and driving records — Do you have a lead foot? Your employer is going to know about it. More concerning than the occasional speeding ticket, though, is a record of DUIs (especially in the last decade) or reckless driving. Employers might question whether you will exercise better judgment on the job than you did behind the wheel.

* Credit reports — Are you upside down in your mortgage? Do you owe $10,000 to Old Navy? Have you had your water shut off due to late payment? All these sordid details and more will be made known to your employer when they look at your credit report. If you want to know exactly what they’re going to see, you can go to and pull a free credit report. By law, you are entitled to one free credit report from each of the three reporting agencies a year.  As far as concerns about bankruptcy filings, be prepared to explain your situation if asked… and realize that landing a job as an accountant or other financial officer might be especially sticky.

* Educational records — Expect that employers will confirm where you went to school, what your major was, and whether or not you actually graduated Magna Cum Laude. Are you a few credits short of your BA? Then don’t say you earned it, because this is one of the easiest exaggerations to uncover. Odds are those credits don’t make a hill of beans of difference in terms of your ability to do the job… but lying about them will raise all sorts of red flags about what else you might be hiding.

* Court records — If you are divorced, expect that your employer will know exactly who has custody of the kids and on which weekend … and what your child support arrangement is. Likewise with any suit you may have filed or been a party to. Unless you have a long track record of suing past employers or suspiciously changing your name every six months, court records probably won’t negatively impact your chances of landing a job.

* Criminal records — That drunken indiscretion in college probably won’t come back to bite you, as most states protect you with statute of limitations regulations on non-felony crimes. If you have a history of arrest for violent crimes, however, even without conviction, expect that to ding your image — possibly irreparably. And if you were convicted of a felony but lied about it… forget about it! Likewise, if your name appears on the sex offender registry, an employer will find out about it. And likely remove you from the running, especially in a job with mandatory reporting requirements.

* Drug test records — Some employers ask you to pee in cup right then and there. Others will look at your past record on drug tests. Failed tests definitely don’t bode well. A little recreational drug use may or may not impair your ability to do the job, but you certainly don’t want to give a new employer a reason to doubt your commitment. Especially not when 100 other folks are in line for the job right behind you!

Are you freaking out? Take a deep breath —  you’re not sunk yet. Tune in tomorrow to learn how you can protect yourself from bad background checks.

And in the meantime, tell us: Have  you ever had an employer run a background check on you? Was it a nail-biting experience? Did you get the job anyway?

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