Is a background check keeping you from your next job?

Mar 3, 2014 at 9:45 a.m. ET

If you're having trouble finding a job, a background check could be to blame. Do you know what information is being reported about you to potential employers? We'll show you how to find out and how to combat it.

Background check

Criminal background checks for employment

How criminal background checks can be used varies from state to state, but these are generally used to ensure that candidates aren't hired who've committed offenses that could be a red flag for the position they're applying for. If you're seeking a job as a bank teller, a company is unlikely to hire you if you've done five years in the slammer on theft charges. The company also has the safety of its employees and customers to consider.

Credit checks for employment

Hiring companies may also run a credit check. If you're trying to improve your credit, don't worry. These are considered "soft" inquiries and don't affect your credit. Again, what employers are looking for varies by the position.

Employers are not necessarily looking for great credit; they're looking for patterns that may indicate you're a risk in that position. For example, if you've recently been employed in jobs that pay well, they probably don't want to see a bad credit rating or history of default. They may also be looking for potential stress factors or just whether or not you can handle money (especially with regard to financial services jobs and those involving high-ticket items like jewelry).

Other checks

Employers are also authorized to check your driving history and past employment. They may use third-party services like HireRight to handle many types of checks at once.

Things to know about background checks

  • You have to consent to these checks in writing. Generally, work-history checks are authorized by signing the application, but read it carefully as other checks may be, too. Usually, you're asked to sign a separate form for more substantive checks.
  • If you don't get the job because of a background check, employers are required by law to inform you in writing and tell you how to request a copy of the report. In some cases (if it was a credit report, for example), they may be required to give you a copy of the report. Either way, you may be able to request a copy of the report at the time you fill out the consent form.
  • Medical records cannot be a part of your background check. Employers are allowed to ask if you can do the job based on the job description and how you plan to do it, but you're not required to tell them anything that doesn't directly apply to doing the job, including whether or not you are or plan to become pregnant (and they're not allowed to ask). If you owe money because of a medical condition or procedure, the name of the place you owe money to (e.g., Cancer Treatment Center) will be obscured so it doesn't reveal private information, though on a copy you order, you'll be able to see the full name of the creditor.
  • A credit report will also contain public-record information, like bankruptcies and back child support, and may contain notices of dispute if you've challenged the validity of an entry.

Protecting yourself from negative background checks

Knowledge is power. The best way to protect yourself is to know what a background check says and how it may impact you.

You can pull a credit report from each of the three major bureaus (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax) once per year free of charge (or within 60 days before you look for employment), or you can use a free service to get a report. We recommend viewing all three since they can vary. Go through the reports carefully to ensure there are no errors. If there are, file a dispute with the credit bureau. If your score is low, check to see if there are outstanding debts you can pay or unnecessary credit lines that are open.

You can see your FBI report under the Privacy Act by following the instructions on its website. If there are any errors, there's even a way to dispute those.

Only use government or verifiable services to check yourself. Many phishing sites use these ploys to gather private data like your social security number.


When filling out applications, honesty is the best policy. It's OK to make yourself sound like the best candidate, but don't lie. Answer only the questions asked and don't give additional information. If they ask about felonies, don't mention misdemeanors; if they ask about doing the work, don't mention that you're hoping to be pregnant by early next year.

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