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Background check red flags

Performing a background check is a good way to avoid making a problematic hire. But background checks are not a pass/fail system. Learn what red flags you should watch out for, and what aren't necessarily dealbreakers for a potential hire.

You’ve found your perfect candidate. They’ve done well in all your interviews and skills assessments. You’re ready to extend them an offer. Now it’s time for the final hurdle: their background check. But background check issues shouldn’t make you automatically disqualify good candidates. If you find something problematic, it’s always a good idea to bring it up with your candidates and give them a chance to respond. Here are five background check red flags you can discuss with candidates:

Inconsistencies between background checks and resumes

Background checks should give you an accurate representation of all companies your candidate worked for in the past. Although it’s likely that your candidate will only highlight their most relevant experience on their resume, pay attention to anything that seems inconsistent. It’s best to ask candidates directly about any discrepancies you see, because they could just be clerical errors. However, it’s always possible that your candidate embellished their resume. Significant discrepancies between a candidate’s resume and background check can indicate that the candidate has something to hide in their employment history, which can hint at future problems.

Poor credit history

Background checks often include your candidate’s credit score and financial records. These can include delinquencies, bankruptcies, judgments, liens and a list of loans, mortgages and credit-card accounts. Credit checks are rare for many U.S. positions, but they can be crucial if the position requires corporate spending or money management. Though blemishes on a credit account don’t necessarily have to raise any red flags, keep an eye out for multiple foreclosures, or other major financial fallouts that may affect job performance.

When asking for a credit check, know what you’re allowed to consider. Some information in financial background checks is protected by Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) regulations. Many background check services are EEO-compliant and can provide you with the most relevant information about your candidate.

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Criminal history

Though criminal history may be one of the more jarring things to read on a candidate’s background report, it’s important to know that an arrest or conviction record does not automatically bar individuals from all employment. Criminal history can be a warning sign if the nature of the candidate’s crimes impact their ability to do the job. Employers may also consider how much time has elapsed since the criminal conduct in question. Employees may also give a candidate who may be excluded by a criminal background check an opportunity to show why he or she should not be excluded.

It’s also worth noting that arrests and convictions are very different. Having an arrest record does not necessarily mean anything. (People get arrested for all kinds of reasons – including being in the wrong place at the wrong time.) Arrest records aren’t proof of criminal conduct, as stated in the Commission’s 1990 policy statement on Arrest Records. However, if there is evidence of conduct that disqualifies a candidate for a particular position, employers have grounds for dismissing a candidate.

In general, criminal history should be handled sensitively. In the United States, Title VII prohibits employers from treating job applicants with the same criminal records differently because of their race, color, religion, sex or national origin. However, even when employers treat job applicants with the same criminal records in the same way, the nature of the justice system can still disproportionately exclude people of particular races or national origins. According Title VII, if an employer can’t prove that they excluded a candidate for “job related” reasons that are “consistent with business necessity,” they’ve broken the law.

Poor reviews from former co-workers

Reference calls can be a mixed bag. Though there’s no substitute for a great reference, bad reference are trickier to assess. A poor reference can be, as expected, a reflection of poor job performance. But it could also be based on a combination of factors, like personal history, bitterness about an employee leaving a job or other issues that are difficult to glean from a short phone call.

Use reference calls to confirm factual information about candidates. Any background check issues that arise in this process should spark conversations. Throughout the process, you can determine if the poor reference call is an accurate representation of your candidate’s ability to perform.

Social media

Background checks may dive into your candidates’ social media accounts. Many companies also run dedicated social media background checks to deliberately collect this information. Most people think twice about candidates who post photos or posts that demonstrate aggressive, violent, unlawful, discriminatory or explicit activity. If you choose to include social media in a background check, it’s important to make sure you’re finding information about the person you’re looking for, not someone with a similar name. Social media background checks, like other background checks, must comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA); you have to provide candidates with copies of their reports and make sure you have a process in place if people dispute report findings.

See our Employee Background Check Policy Sample for a starting point in developing your company policies.

Frequently asked questions

What fails you on a background check?

When you're trying to get a job, it's essential that the company can verify your past. That means checking not just criminal history and education discrepancies but also credit reports from banks as well any driving license suspensions or drug tests passed. This helps potential employers know if they'll be hiring someone who might become unemployed later because of something like an old DUI charge (that may have been private).

What usually shows up on a background check?

Criminal background checks are one way to ensure you're hiring the right person. These records will show if someone has been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor, and can even include their incarceration history as an adult!

What do employers look for in a background check?

An employer is likely to check your work history, credit reports, and driving records. They might also request that you provide related documentation, such as court orders, certificates for vehicle ownership, and drug test results if applicable (although this may change depending on the company).

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