Few things are more nerve-wracking than an unexpected background check. Whether you are interviewing for a new job, signing a lease on an apartment or applying for a volunteer opportunity, waiting on results may cause some stress. For some people, conducting a preemptive background check reduces uncertainty.
Daniella, a St. Louis-based software engineer, ran a background check on herself before landing a government contract job. She was nervous an old charge for driving under the influence may reappear. Luckily, nothing came up during her own background search or her employer’s.
Daniella’s situation isn’t unique. Seventy-three percent of employers run criminal background checks on their job candidates, according to a recent study from the Society for Human Resource Management and the Charles Koch Institute.
But criminal checks aren’t the only type of background check to worry about. Evictions, bankruptcies or professional license suspensions are all things that may resurface. Or worse, there may be errors based on someone else’s history. If you’re eager to run a background check on yourself—and see what you may potentially unearth—here is what you need to know.
Why are background checks conducted?
Companies use background reports to confirm your identity and protect themselves. Depending on what they want to verify, you can expect different levels of scrutiny. That said, federal laws such as the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) regulate how and when employers can use the information uncovered through a background search.
According to Sandy Steinman, president of Background Checks Express, you are most likely to see a background check when applying for a job, apartment lease or volunteer opportunity.
Still, Florida attorney Eric Dirga adds you may be surprised what a background check turns up. “Today, we live in the age of information. Many things we are required to do, such as registering our car, are recorded as public records,” said Dirga, who specializes in expunging criminal records from public . “It is a good idea to know what your background check reveals, including your criminal history, and the protections that the law provides regarding such records.”
It’s normal to feel anxious about background checks. To ease your concerns, take a closer look at five of the most common types and what you can expect from each one.
Criminal background checks
“I am always concerned for the safety of my employees. It’s a big decision to bring people on board,” said Anna Huffman, a human resources manager for SPS Technologies, a supplier of aerospace parts.
Huffman said most employers will review seven years into your past to check for a criminal history. They may be looking for violence, theft and, in some cases, past DUIs.
Depending on where you live, hiring managers will request information from your local county clerk’s office. Or, they will search statewide databases, if your state has one. Because these reports may contain errors, most employers will verify your identity with a Social Security number trace.
If your new job includes driving, employers may check motor vehicle reports. Depending on your role, they may be looking at your seven-year driving history. They may also want to know if you have any restrictions, which includes wearing glasses or hearing aids.
Car insurance companies will also pull your motor vehicle report. They will use the information to gauge their risk of insuring you. Based on what they uncover, they may adjust your monthly payments accordingly.
Some companies may want to run your credit reports before doing business with you. Common reasons may include new apartment rentals, utilities, insurance policies and government assistance.
Employers may want to run your credit reports, too—especially for financial roles. Employers, however, can’t check credit reports without your permission, Huffman said. They may need your signature before they can move forward.
For certain jobs, employers may be looking for personal financial responsibility. But Steinman said they may be willing to overlook extenuating circumstances.
“There’s a big difference between someone who bought a $500,000 house or Tesla and couldn’t afford the payments versus someone with a hefty medical bill,” he said.
If you’re applying for a job with education requirements, the company may call any schools you’ve attended and ask for your attendance and graduation dates. According to Steinman, many jobs need a license in good standing. In these cases, background checks may look for negative marks or sanctions against your license(s).
If you have made a habit of oversharing on Facebook or Instagram, your online venting sessions could come back to haunt you. According to a recent CareerBuilder survey, 70% of hiring managers use social media to screen job candidates. And worse, more than half of those who checked social profiles didn’t hire a candidate based on something they uncovered.
History of background checks
Have you ever wondered why employer background checks started? Some point to a 1908 case of employee negligence in Corbin, Kentucky. A company was held liable for negligent hiring after a dangerous prank resulted in another employee’s death. By the 1970s, it became standard practice for companies to vet their employees through more extensive background screening.
Know your rights
If you worry about privacy, the different types of background checks may feel overwhelming. The good news is, you may have more rights and protections than you think.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which is the consumer protection agency that enforces FCRA, says employers must follow these basic rules:
- Employers need your written permission before conducting certain background checks.
- It’s illegal to discriminate based on your race, color, national origin, sex, religion, disability, genetic information (including medical history) or age.
- They can’t ask for medical information until after they have offered you a job.
- If they don’t hire or promote someone based on criminal history, credit reports, or other public records, they must tell the person why with specific details.
- Employers must use a FCRA-accredited agency to run background checks. (Keep in mind, BeenVerified isn’t authorized for employment or tenant screening.)
You may have further protections at the local level. Thirty-four states and more than 150 cities and counties have “ban-the-box” laws, which cover three-fourths of the U.S. population. If you live in a place with these laws, employers must consider your job qualifications above your criminal record.
Common reasons background checks are used
These are the most common scenarios where you may encounter a background search:
- Applying for a job
- Applying for an apartment
- Signing up for a cellphone or utility account
- Applying for government assistance
- Opening a bank account
- Applying for a credit card or insurance
- Applying for nonprofit or company board roles
- Applying for volunteer positions, especially if working with children
- Applying for certain gambling casino jobs if they offer a line of credit
Reasons to run a background check on yourself
For Daniella, running a background check on herself eased her worries before applying for a government job. She was concerned her DWI, which was reduced to a reckless driving charge, may resurface. This is common: “Some folks want to know what their record looks like. They want to know what is out there before getting into the job market,” Steinman said.
In Daniella’s case, seeing that she didn’t have a criminal background before applying for the job gave her the confidence to move forward. “My background check was boring—no surprises,” she said.
Errors are common
One of the best reasons to run a background check on yourself is to look for errors. Huffman said it’s important to protect yourself from inaccurate information or delays. “It gives you the visibility your future employer, landlord or others may see,” she added.
According to Steinman, it’s common to find errors and incorrect entries on these reports. If you discover errors in your own reports, he recommends taking these steps:
- Figure out where the incorrect information came from.
- Contact the company and ask them to update the incorrect information.
- Follow up as needed. The process may take time.
He said correcting errors often takes longer than you may expect. That’s why it’s better to fix them before a prospective employer or landlord is asking for a background check.
What turns up in a background check?
If you are ready to run a basic background search on yourself (start here), you can expect information that may include:
- Public records searches
- Personal details, such as your:
- current and past addresses
- phone number
- email address
- family members' names
- Social media accounts
- Criminal history
More in-depth services may offer a look at your civil legal history, marriage and divorce records, child support orders, and other types of legal judgments.
A final word
When it comes to background checks, ignorance isn’t bliss. By taking the time to scope out your profile in advance, you may save yourself from major headaches down the road. “Knowledge is power, and it allows you to be proactive,” said Huffman.