What Happens When an Employer Does a Background Check About You?

by Michael Klazema

Background Check
Many of today’s jobs require applicants to go through background checks before they can officially be hired. The question is, what exactly happens when an employer runs a background check?

At some point in your pre-employment screening process, you will likely be asked to consent to a background check. For instance, when you receive a job offer, the offer letter might include a note letting you know that your hiring is contingent upon the completion of a background check. But what exactly happens when an employer runs a background check on you?

The first thing that is important to understand is that every employer runs background checks a bit differently. Some employers focus almost exclusively on the criminal background check while others dig a bit deeper with other types of checks. Employers are also playing by slightly different rules depending on the state in which they do business. For instance, credit checks are illegal for employment purposes in some states, and criminal history can go back different numbers of years depending on your location.

You’ll want to find out what the background check laws are in your state to learn a bit more about what to expect specifically, but for the most part, each type of check works the same way no matter where you are. Read on for a summary of the most common pre-employment background checks and how they work.

Criminal Background Checks

Many people falsely believe that there is a giant go-to database of criminal history information that all criminal background checks use. The truth is more complicated and a good deal messier. In general, criminal history checks are split into three categories: county, state, and multi-jurisdictional.

County courthouses are where most criminal records are filed, so county checks tend to provide direct accounts of criminal history incidents. However, these checks cover the smallest geographical area. County checks are reliant on state databases which must be manually maintained. State checks typically cover a larger geographical area but offer less detail.

Alternatively, employers may choose to start with multi-jurisdictional checks and narrow the scope from there. Multi-jurisdictional checks are searches of massive criminal record databases that include criminal information from all 50 states as well as additional U.S. territories. Depending on the background check company your prospective employer is working with, the business may be using a multi-jurisdictional search that focuses on just a few states or a search that has a nationwide scope. Either way, the goal of these searches is to pull criminal data from a wide range of locations all at once to get a sense of whether the applicant has a criminal record.

Different employers have different approaches for using these three types of checks, which means that there isn’t one standard way for a criminal background check to happen. Just to give an example, an employer might run county and state checks on you in the county and state in which the business is based. To widen the search, they might run an address history check on you and then pull additional county records in areas where you have lived before.

Essentially, your employer (or their background check company) is doing criminal searches on your name in the areas in which you are most likely to have been convicted of a crime. A criminal background check isn’t just one search, but rather multiple searches that pull data from a range of different sources.

Verification Checks

Verifications are the types of background checks that an employer would run to check the validity of the statements you made on your resume. Verifications generally take one of four forms: education, employment, reference, or professional license.

What happens with these checks is that your employer (or the background check company they are using) reaches out to people linked to your resume to verify your statement. To do an education verification, an employer would call your college or university to make sure that you attended, check the dates that you were enrolled, and verify that you received a degree. To do a professional license verification, a background checker would call the relevant licensing body to find out details about your license, including the date it was issued and whether it is still valid.

The other two checks in this category—employment verifications and reference checks—are more familiar to most candidates. In an employment verification, your hiring manager might call the HR department at your former job to double check the position you held, your dates of employment, your salary, and your reason for departure. A reference check involves a call to the professional references you listed on your application and is used to learn more about your skills, character, reliability, and other factors that might impact your employment.

Credit Check

Credit checks in the consumer realm are often linked with credit scores. A credit check used for employment purposes does not (and cannot) include an actual credit score. An employer running this type of check would obtain relevant information from one of the three major credit bureaus. These types of checks are becoming less common in the employment process, due largely to the EEOC’s distaste for them. However, some employers will still use credit history checks to learn more about candidates for jobs that involve money or access to accounts. In such cases, employers are probably looking for signs of serious financial issues in your past, such as lawsuits, judgments, or bankruptcies.

Driving Record Check

If the job you are applying for will involve the operation of a motor vehicle, then you will likely be required to undergo a driving record check. A good background check for driving history—usually run through a dependable background check company—will examine driving records from throughout the United States. With such a comprehensive view, a driving record check will be able to provide a detailed report of your driving history. This report may include information about tickets, points on your license, license suspensions or revocations, instances of driving while intoxicated, and more.


Background checks vary in how they work as well as in what they do. Some checks utilize databases and public records to compile information about you. Others, such as verification checks, typically require more personalized communication with people, organizations, or institutions from your past. In all cases, the goal of a check is the same: to learn more about you and determine whether you are a good candidate for the job at hand.

Michael Klazema has been developing products for pre-employment screening and improving online customer experiences in the background screening industry since 2009. He is the lead author and editor for Backgroundchecks.com. He lives in Dallas, TX with his family and enjoys the rich culinary histories of various old and new world countries.

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