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By Brad L Jones
More than eighty percent of employers do some type of background search on new employees. I've been in the background screening industry for over thirteen years and in that time I've conducted tens of thousands of these background checks.
The fact is, one out of eight people have a criminal history. If you take into consideration all aspects of a background check such as past employment, education and professional licensing, you'll find that the number of applications with (purposeful) misinformation increases to between 35 and 40 percent.
People call our offices all the time to see if we can run a background check on them before their potential employer does. They want to know if that misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge from college is going to show up on their record. They want to see what the manager they didn't get along with is going to say about them when the new potential employer calls for a reference.
Below I've listed some important information that you should know about your background check and I try to clear up some common misconceptions. Keep in mind that there is no such thing as a standard background check. Every company does varying degrees of background checks determined by the position, and based on what they're willing to spend per applicant on due diligence.
Important Points About Employment Background Checks
1) Criminal Records
Read the application carefully. It most likely asks if you've been convicted of a crime, not arrested. There's no need to report arrests that did not result in convictions if the application does not ask for this information. Many will argue that an employer cannot legally ask if you've been arrested; however 36 states do allow arrest information to be factored into the hiring decision. Check with your state's department of employment security to know for certain.
Often, people aren't sure if their arrest resulted in a conviction. Simply put, if you plead guilty to a crime, then it is technically a conviction, even if you received probation or supervision. If you were found innocent, the case was dismissed, or there was no probable cause, "nolle pros" then the case is not a conviction. There are a couple of rare exceptions to this based on individual state laws.
Never assume a case has been expunged unless you actually paid an attorney to file for expungement and it was approved by a judge, or you filed the proper documents yourself. Applicants frequently call our office when they don't get hired as a result of their background check and say "I thought that case was expunged". If you did not go through the procedure of filing for an expungement and have it approved, then the record is still available to see.
Employers are NOT limited to 7 years on a criminal record search. Some states have their own Fair Credit Reporting Act rules that limit what crimes are reportable past seven years, often based on the position and how much it pays. By federal F.C.R.A. standards, however, a conviction can be reported indefinitely. The "7 year rule" usually applies to arrests that did not result in a conviction. Nevertheless, arrests are not indicators of guilt, so an employer should not disqualify you based on an arrest without further inquiry as to the circumstances.
Even a conviction does NOT automatically disqualify you from employment. The crime must have a direct relationship with the job you are applying for. (The U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission states that employers must weigh a variety of elements when factoring convictions into hiring decisions. These include the nature and severity of the offense, the time that has elapsed, and whether the offense has any relation to the position advertised.) For example, a conviction for writing bad checks should not disqualify an applicant from driving a forklift. However, a conviction for aggravated assault could disqualify an applicant from almost any job that they would be working directly with other people. It's up to the discretion of the employer in this case
Question: Will any criminal conviction record in my file be located no matter the place or year of occurrence?
Answer: No, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't disclose it. A common misconception about criminal background checks is that they're really easy and quick to do. Thanks to T.V. shows like C.S.I, people tend to think that you type a name into a computer and out pops every criminal infraction ever committed anywhere in the country.
The fact is, employers and background investigation companies cannot access the N.C.I.C. system that the police and F.B.I. use unless the job requires a fingerprint check that gets sent to the F.B.I. electronically.
Our standard method of determining where to search for criminal records is by running your social security number through our databases which provides us the locations you've resided for the last ten to twenty years. This also informs us of maiden names that may be associated to you. It's then determined by the background screening package (already in place) how in-depth the research will be and how far back the criminal record check will go.
As a background screening company, we would be thrilled it if every client company of ours could afford to have us search every jurisdiction that the applicant ever lived, but that's not usually the case. We generally search between one and three of the most recent counties that the applicant resided in along with a "national" criminal record database search which contains over 500 million archived criminal records throughout the country. These "national" criminal databases are great secondary searches that provide broad coverage although they're far from perfect. Many local and federal jurisdictions do not submit information to these private databases so they have many gaps in coverage. National database searches used for employment screening do not compare to the actual N.C.I.C. search that the police and F.B.I. use.
To make matters more difficult for the screening companies, federal records are kept completely separate from county criminal records or national database searches. We must access a different system to check for any criminal records located in each of the federal jurisdictions that the applicant resided in.
So is it possible that we could miss a criminal record that an applicant has? Of course we could. However, if we locate it, and you did not disclose it on the application when asked, you will most likely be disqualified for falsifying your application. This is true even when the record itself may not have eliminated you from the position. In my opinion, your best bet is to disclose any criminal record information.
Remember that most employers really want to fill the position and most don't care if you made a mistake more than a few years ago. Many of our clients request that we not disclose cases that are older than 7 or 10 years unless they are felony offenses.
2) Past Employment Verifications /Reference Checks
Past employers are unlikely to criticize you. It's true, believe it or not. Even though you're old manager, Doug, may have called you a slacker three times a week and thought you stole the pens from his desk whenever he left the office, chances are that he's not going to disclose that information. At least not if your old company has a human resources department. Big companies want to play it safe. They don't want to deal with the ex-employee that doesn't get the next job because of something they said. Standard policy is to say as little as possible and not state opinions. Most often, when our researchers call a company, they are immediately directed to the HR department which will only release the standard information such as: dates of employment, job title, and salary. Occasionally they will disclose if you are eligible for employment in the future.
The exceptions to the rule are small businesses and legal obligation.
When we call a small business that doesn't have a human resources department or legal counsel, we may talk directly to the owner or someone that worked directly with the applicant. In this situation we tend to get far more detail, which could be positive or negative. If you left a small business on bad terms, and you have to list them as a reference to avoid a big gap in your employment timeline, it may suit you to provide an explanation to your potential employer. They will most likely still call the past employer, but at least you've taken the time to clarify what happened and they will know that any negativity expressed in the report may be more emotional than factual.
The other exception is the legal / ethical obligation an employer has if you were terminated due to illegal or outright dangerous behavior. The past employer can be open to civil litigation if they do not disclose that you harmed someone, acted negligently or committed a crime that caused your dismissal
3) Credit Checks
Contrary to popular belief, an employment credit report will NOT negatively affect your credit score!
A pre-employment credit report provides the employer the exact same information as a consumer credit report that an auto dealer or bank might run when obtaining a loan. However, a pre-employment credit report does not display your credit score. Employers are not allowed to pass judgment based on your credit score.
The main purpose of a credit report is to be a gauge of potential irresponsibility and propensity towards theft. For example, if you have extreme amount of debt due to credit card balances and several accounts in collection status and you're applying for a job managing cash, you could be seen as a high risk for internal theft. Likewise, if you're applying to be a financial advisor and your credit report clearly shows your incapacity for managing your own money, they're unlikely to trust you with their client's money.
If you're turned down for a job after undergoing a background check, the company you applied with should provide you with a pre-adverse action letter stating you might not be hired due to something discovered during the background check, as well as provide you a copy of the report. If they don't, be sure to ask for a copy. The background screening company is required to provide a toll free number to their offices in case you have questions or want to dispute a finding. Most credible background screening companies will act quickly to re-check any information you dispute and correct the report if necessary.
The more you know about the background screening process going in, the better your chances of providing complete information without fear of shooting yourself in the foot. Always remember, the employer isn't out to get you, but their priority will always be protecting themselves from liability and obtaining a quality employee. So emphasize the good, explain the bad and don't try to cover up a mistake as it could do more harm than good!
SafeScreener.com (Background Screening Consultants LLC) is located at 650 W Lake St, Chicago, Illinois. SafeScreener.com has been providing employers and non-profit organizations with applicant screening solutions since 1996.
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