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Background Check 101: Everything You Should Know

Michelle Wilson - April 8, 2022

Most people assume that a background check is a simple criminal history of an individual, but there’s much more to it than that. The process is a comprehensive way to screen your candidates by looking at criminal history records. Employers can also review employment history, education, references, civil records, etc. Every piece of the screening is a critical component, protecting your company from additional liability and safety concerns.

This process verifies all applicants to ensure individuals are exactly who they claim to be, particularly outside local boundaries and previous records or documents. All pre-employment screenings can protect the company, staff, and clients from additional risk.

What information shows up on a criminal history check?

While criminal records will show on your report, it’s only a small component. Typically, people assume that a background check is simply a criminal record check when there’s much more to it than that small component. Employers will receive the civil records, references, employment history, personal identification of a candidate, and primary records.

A background check helps an organization stay safe through criminal history verification. It ensures applicants do what they claim without sacrificing quality or increasing risk. By scanning all interested parties, you’ll eliminate candidates that don’t hold proper qualifications while simultaneously verifying other relevant details.

Do Arrests Show on Background Checks?

As arrests aren’t admissions of guilt, the records are often unreliable and unfair when set as a barrier to employment. The reported information will depend on the state, as some locations hold different mandates on documented details. Some states have laws prohibiting employers from asking about previous arrests or using them in any decision-related capacity.

Some background check companies will exclude all arrest history to protect consumers from compliance issues, while others will include them in the profile. To determine whether your state legally allows the use of arrest records for hiring purposes, review individual conditions.

Do Dismissed Cases Show on Background Checks?

A dismissed criminal case may show on a candidate’s background check. Criminal charges will stay on an individual’s record, even if the charges are dismissed or when a case ends in a not guilty verdict. Knowing the difference between a formal conviction versus a criminal charge that didn’t go anywhere is essential in your hiring considerations.

Will sealed or expunged records show on background checks?

When a candidate successfully petitions the court to seal or expunge a criminal record, those convictions should no longer appear on the background check report. All records of this nature are essentially scrubbed and removed from existence, wiping the account from the information.

When someone has a conviction on their record and subsequently has that record expunged, they could accurately state “No” to any variation of “have you ever been convicted of a crime?”.

Do Traffic Tickets Show on Criminal Background Checks?

A criminal background report will seldom include a simple traffic ticket within the criminal component of the screening. Most traffic tickets are civil citations, meaning they don’t comply with the felony or misdemeanor definition. A few driving charges will fall under these parameters, including driving under the influence and reckless driving. Both of these convictions will fall under the motor vehicle records check and the criminal history sections of the report. If you’re looking to confirm any traffic tickets or charges, you’ll want to ensure the candidate’s driving history with a motor vehicle records check.

How Far Back do Criminal History Evaluations Go?

How Far Back do Criminal History Evaluations Go?

The recorded history of a background check will depend on the state requesting the records. No federal laws currently exist on this subject, making it individual discretion. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) holds rules limiting any “adverse information”; there is no corresponding regulation for criminal history checks. The FCRA offers guidelines and limitations surrounding reporting of consumer details on a credit report, mandating tax lien and bankruptcy cases on a report. Most states will decide this matter individually, including the reporting timeframe. The average for most criminal background check history is seven years.

Understanding the Criminal History Background Check

Your criminal history background check will vary occasionally but will almost always include any felony and misdemeanor convictions, history of incarceration, and pending criminal cases. Any arrests that are pending prosecution may also report on the screening. While some companies may show arrests that don’t lead to convictions, many EEOC guidelines prohibit the inclusion of these files.

Likewise, any juvenile convictions and detention sealed through a court will typically not appear within the searches. Should a state forbid disclosure of convictions, the files will drop off the record after some time. Disclosure of convictions more than seven years old is prohibited in Kansas, California, Maryland, New York, Massachusetts, Montana, New Hampshire, and Washington. Likewise, Hawaii forbids disclosure of convictions after five years for misdemeanors and seven years for felonies.

What are Verification Checks?

Although a criminal history check is paramount in your hiring decision, another crucial component to consider is verifying information. Take your time verifying the information a candidate has provided through the job application and resume. The criminal background check won’t reveal details surrounding previous employment or education, as these areas fall outside of regular consideration.

 A verification check will include different types of information, confirming details from the job application and resume. Your candidate’s criminal background check won’t reveal anything about education or employment. These require additional confirmation, including certification and licensing, references, and other critical factors for the hiring process.

How do Employers Run an Employment History Check?

How do Employers Run an Employment History Check?

The employment verification check looks at the validity of someone’s work history against the information they supplied on their resume. It’s not uncommon for job applicants to add additional skills, embellish employment history, or fabricate experience to make it more impressive. This embellishment includes altering the job title, adjusting the start or end times of employment, or listing skills or responsibilities outside the position. An employment verification check will contact previous employers to verify the accuracy of key information points.

Employers commonly ask what questions an employer can or cannot say about a previous employee. When you’re contacted about a previous hire, you may feel hesitant about the information you discuss or employment particulars. Thankfully, no federal laws restrict what employers discuss with previous employment or staff. For example, if a candidate you’re screening was terminated from an earlier position, the employer can and should tell you that, explaining the reasoning behind their decision.

How Do Most Employers Approach References?

A strong fear of defamation lawsuits is an influential component, especially when those employment details aren’t positive. Most employers will likely tread carefully when disclosing information about previous employees. An employer typically won’t comment much on the individual’s character, nor will they mention the work ethic of a previous employee. Many companies refuse to answer out of fear of slander, court costs, and costly litigation. As a result, many employment verifications are focused extensively on objective and easily verifiable details surrounding employment. These details might include job title duties and responsibilities, salary details, and fact-based details.

What is the Reference Check?

A reference check is a regular part of the hiring process that often involves contacting personal connections, supervisors, schools, and other vital individuals to verify the details of a resume. Employers will get a reference for clarification on skills, educational information, experiences, and background. These questions may talk about general work ethic or specialized skills within the workplace. It’s essential to stick with open-ended questions that leave room for expansion instead of closed questions that leave little room for interpretation.

How Do Reference Checks Work for Employment?

Any company looking to hire an applicant should always consider the references before hiring. Following up on these references offers a subjective assessment of the person applying for a position within the business. Many recruiters assume a candidate will ask the person listed for a reference; these verifications often touch on personality, work ethic, and skill. A reference check can determine whether someone will adapt well to the current working environment and the talent and personality outside of the interview.

What is a Civil History Check?

What is a Civil History Check?

Most pre-employment background checks will include a criminal history component to the report. Should a recruitment agency or employer review an applicant, the information is gathered across multiple reference levels. These reference points include county, state, and federal courts and include crimes against the state (including theft or other crimes in contravention of the country’s laws).

The civil history background check is an entirely separate component, and these cases are those brought to the court by an alleged victim instead of the state. Should someone sue for wrongdoing by another individual, case records form part of civil court records. There are two types of civil history background screenings, county and federal.

Breakdown of the Civil Background Check

Civil records pull all documents at the local and federal levels. Most states will divide local cases between lower and upper-level courts based on the claim amount. Lower-level courts will typically address claims under $5,000, while upper courts will address claims.

A local claim will handle anything on contracts, car accidents, discrimination, eviction, divorce, child custody, and other civil issues. Searches include interstate commerce, tax disputes, financial institutions, civil rights, and bankruptcy court on the federal level.

What Will an Education History Check Show?

What Will an Education History Check Show?

Most prospective employers will require specific qualifications when applying for different employment positions. Statistics show that most applicants aren’t always truthful with their resumes or qualifications, exaggerating their skills and abilities to secure employment. Education verification checks are critical in the hiring process, protecting both the applicant and the employer from potential risks.

Breakdown of the Education History Check

An education history check includes a comprehensive list of credentials, qualifications, and expertise. This verification includes certificates, degrees, and diplomas. Most reports will outline the highest education level completed by a candidate, degree or degrees attained, the institution names from where a candidate acquired the credentials, the graduation dates, and any fabricated data on the application.

This verification can ensure that any candidate hired is qualified for the position within the company. You’ll also instantly identify any illegal activities and fraudulent items on the resume.

What Appears on a Driving History Check?

What Appears on a Driving History Check?

Anyone with a driver’s license has a recorded driving record. The records, however, will vary significantly from one driver to the next. If you’re applying for a position that involves driving, potential employers will consider the driving history before offering a permanent position within the company.

Breakdown of the Driving History Check

Some verifiable items on the driving history check include basic information like the identifying details of the driver, including the name, address, and gender of the individual. The driving history check also consists of any issuing information, with a copy of the license number and the state-issued. License classifications will also show on the driver’s history check, divided by letter designation (Class A, Class B, and so on). Class tiers vary by state, usually categorized by weight.

The driving history check also includes the license status, which shows whether the license is in good standing or is suspended. Finally, the report will consist of any violations or penalties on the record. Violations may include simple speeding tickets to more extreme convictions like reckless driving.

Other Information Included in the Employment Background Check

A pre-employment background check will often verify personal information, past employment, professional licenses, criminal history, and credit history or driver’s abstract. Depending on the nature of the job, employers may require the driver’s abstract to ensure that all applicants are qualified for the position.

Pre-Employment Drug Testing

For positions involving the operation of a motor vehicle, delicate equipment, any role responsible for public safety, or similar aspects, a pre-employment drug screening is often required. Drug testing can reduce employee absenteeism and turnover, reduce accidents or injuries, and lower workers’ compensation rates overall.

Drug testing options vary significantly, depending on the company policy and workplace obligations. Lab-based urine tests are available with multiple panel options, each verified by Medical Review Officers (MROs) for the highest accuracy. Drug screening options include 4-panel, 5-panel, 8-panel + MQL, and 10-panel tests.

What You Need to Know About Employment Drug Testing

Candidates and employees must comply with the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), other laws, regulations, and agencies that govern employment screening. Many employers rely on a Consumer Reporting Agency (CRA) when running background checks. Likewise, a drug screening program also needs to follow a company drug testing policy and local state laws.

Many states have imposed limitations on all pre-employment drug testing, setting the parameters for when tests are administered. For example, California allows drug testing after the applicant receives an offer of employment, conditional on passing. Always check with legal departments for questions about drug tests as part of your employment screening, remaining compliant with any screening programs or ongoing testing requirements.

Understanding the State and Federal Laws

Some employment background checks abide by limitations and guidelines, depending on the position. For individuals under consideration for a job that pays less than $75,000 a year, restrictions on the background report will occur. In background check results, government sanctions, civil judgments, and disciplinary measures will not appear. For those positions that pay more than $75,000 annually, the information may arise within the background report. This includes current information and items older than seven years.

What is a Fingerprint Background Check?

The fingerprint background check is a relatively catch-all term. It frequently uses a candidate’s fingerprints in addition to other personal information. The fingerprints are used to locate historical information, adding a degree of certainty to all records given.

A fingerprint search is a precise record of information frequently requested by the employer and other databases by the screening company. Most of these search efforts use an FBI criminal records database, although some platforms will use the more miniature Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) database systems.

Information Included in Fingerprint Checks

While this screening is often reserved for candidates looking for positions within the federal government and companies that work for them, a few other businesses look for fingerprint checks. These background checks include an FBI-level screening, uncovering all interactions with law enforcement agencies that provide criminal data. This screening covers all convictions, arrests (including any interactions that did not lead to indictment or convictions), parking tickets, or traffic violations.

Qualified applicants must submit to fingerprinting by a recognized law enforcement agency, with prints checked by the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS). The IAFIS is an automated repository of fingerprints compiled by immigration officials, past employment screenings, and law enforcement agencies. The IACIS links personal data to fingerprints collected in non-criminal and criminal matters. Officials will also check fingerprints against the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database. This check is significantly different than security clearance, although the background check is often the first step in the clearance process.

What is the National Crime Information Center?

The National Crime Information Center is a significant compilation of criminal-history information and data. These include content from wanted criminals and a database of sex offenders and terrorists. Unfortunately, this background check relies heavily on complete bureau databases, with many records sitting incomplete.

What is a Level 2 Background Check?

The level 2 background check is a very specialized type of fingerprint beck that is often reserved for individuals working with vulnerable people. These vulnerable people are daycares, schools, and senior centers for paid and volunteer positions. The level 2 background check is often required for anyone wanting to adopt a child or become a foster parent.

Frequently Asked Questions for Background Checks

Do Misdemeanors Show on a Background Check?

Criminal background checks will include all misdemeanor criminal convictions, including pending cases or charges. Misdemeanors are typically less severe offenses, subject to a potential prison sentence of 15 to one year in a local prison. These may include criminal charges that don’t include jail time but incorporate fines, probation, or community service.

Will Criminal Convictions Older than Seven Years Show on a Background Check?

Some states restrict the release of records that are more than a specific period. Most states will show criminal convictions older than seven years. Occasionally, these states will have restrictions according to the conditional salary. For example, Kansas restricts the release of more than seven years old records unless a candidate will earn more than $20,000 annually.

Will Dismissed Charges Show Up on a Background Check?

Any cases resulting in the dismissal will appear in some criminal background checks. Occasionally, even when the court has sealed case records, an arrest leading up to the case may also appear in the search. Currently, federal EEOC guidelines prevent an employer from turning down an applicant solely due to arrests that didn’t lead to a conviction. As such, many pre-employment background checks will exclude these results from the report.

Do DUIs Show Up on a Background Check?

Driving under the influence is a criminal offense, which reports under the criminal history of a background check. When a pre-employment background screening includes a driving record check or motor vehicle record, a DUI conviction is likely to appear.

Do Traffic Tickets Show up on a Background Check?

Several CRAs report traffic infractions in the background check, but every reporting company will be different. Speeding tickets and other driving infractions will appear for jobs using motor vehicles. Those background checks for pre-employment screening will often skip the motor vehicle record unless the position is directly related to driving.


Background checks are critical in the hiring process, especially when considering liability and risk. Knowing what’s included in the screening process can help candidates understand the disclosure they’re offering while enabling a better understanding for employers. As the background screening process continues to automate and improve overall, so do the processing times. Reduced processing times shorten conditional offers of employment while ensuring all applicants are qualified and capable of performing the job requested. Informed decisions improve the compatibility of candidates within the workplace.

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