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What a Pre-Employment Background Check (Un)Covers

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“We’ll need to run a quick background check and get back to you.” What do potential employers mean when they say this? What are they looking for when they run a pre-employment background check (and what are they not allowed to check)?

Unfortunately, there’s no definitive answer. What employers are allowed to check when they run a background screening depends on the employer, the position or industry, and the state and jurisdiction in which you live and will work. A pre-employment background check can include a combination of criminal history, I-9 verification for immigrants, identity verification, drug and health screening, work history, and even a credit check or another consumer report. Whatever the case, keep these three points in mind when it comes to your rights:

Know your Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) rights. The FCRA establishes how employers can conduct consumer report background screening with a third-party reporting agency for anything that affects your credit standing, character, or mode of living. As you can imagine, this can include any number of consumer background checks. Under the FCRA, an employer should first provide you a clear written disclosure and then a pre-adverse action letter and copy of the report if they decide not to hire you based on what they find. The guidelines were revised in 2018 to address the uptick in credit fraud and to exclude certain medical debts incurred by veterans. To reduce surprises, be sure to proactively monitor your credit report and look into any suspicious changes.

Criminal history, drug testing, and other local issues. Employers in certain jurisdictions like Austin may not be able to run a criminal background check until they’re ready to make an offer. Check out our previous blog post on the subject, if you have a criminal record you’re concerned about. Fewer companies are including marijuana in their drug testing but don’t assume it’s the norm. Remember that marijuana use is still illegal in states like Texas and that THC can remain in your system for up to 90 days. If you’re concerned about these issues, talk to your recruiter.

Areas that are completely off limits. Information deemed off-limits in pre-employment background checks for anyone with a salary of $75,000 or less are bankruptcies after 10 years, and civil suits, civil judgments, records of arrest, paid tax liens and accounts placed for collection after seven years. Education verification can be tricky: you’ll usually need to offer consent for a college or university to release information about your degree. However, many pre-employment background screening companies have systems in place that can fairly accurately assess whether or not a degree is legitimate. And military service can be verified to an extent without your consent.

If you’re concerned about any areas of your professional or personal life that could show up in a pre-employment background check, address it now. Monitor your consumer and credit reports, be accurate on your resume, and prepare how you’ll address potential issues with criminal, credit or other background issues employers may uncover. It’s also important to keep in mind that simple internet searches will happen. Have a good idea of what information might be posted publicly—either by you or someone else. In this age of information, employers have endless ways to research you, and not all of them need to be disclosed.


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