Can You Survive a Background Check?

Almost everyone who gets a new job these days is subject to a background check. Most people don’t give it a second thought, but are there things that you should know before it happens? What if you have a spot on your history? What should you do?

RULE # 1: PLAN AHEAD. If you have a criminal record that you think may prevent you from getting the job you want look into having the record expunged. When a local court expunges a record it is just like it never happened. It should not show up again on your criminal record. HOWEVER, it is possible that it will show up in a statewide or NCIC (FBI) check because the records are already in that system and it may be a while before they are purged. Do a Google search on ‘criminal records expungement’ and you will find a wealth of information including firms that will do it for you and ones that will provide all the paperwork so that you can do it yourself and save money. Note that this is not a quick fix. The process could take a while. Do a preemptive background check on yourself if needed. Go down to the court clerk’s office and ask to get a copy of your criminal record in that county. This is something that you should address before you start sending out résumés.

If your problem is a poor performance record at a previous job try to make it right with the previous employer. Just about everyone has had a boss that they did not get along with for whatever reason. You know that if this person is contacted by a prospective employer that he/she will paint a picture of you as an inept idiot. One suggestion is to swallow your pride and admit your problems and try to convince them that you have changed so that if he is called on for a reference you at least have a shot at a positive response. Have a friend call your previous employer and find out what they are saying about you when asked about your competency, character or performance. Be preemptive in your résumé. Address the problem where you can describe it on your own terms.

Try volunteering to help charities with your particular skill. A positive reference goes a long way to balancing out a negative one.

RULE # 2: TELL THE TRUTH. Let’s say that you had a “minor indiscretion” on your record such as shoplifting. If your job application asks if you’ve ever been convicted of a crime you should tell the truth and answer correctly. If you don’t, and you are found out, in the mind of the Human Resources person you are not only a thief, but a liar as well. It is much better for you to tell them than for them to find out about your record later. You may want to rehearse this with someone before you are interviewed. Be prepared to tell them why the ‘incident’ happened and how you learned from that experience and how you are a changed person now.

Also, you should know that background checkers are people too. When a person at a background checking company is working on your file and they find out that you did not tell the truth about your criminal or job history, they are going to approach the rest of your report with a higher degree of skepticism. That’s just human nature. Your report then tends gets reexamined with a fine tooth comb.

RULE # 3: ANSWER QUESTIONS AS THEY ARE ASKED. Don’t volunteer any information that is not asked for. Example: if the questionnaire asks you if you have been convicted of a crime in the last 7 years and your conviction was 7 years and one week ago, you answer “No.” If the question asks you if you have ever been convicted of a felony, don’t volunteer any information about a misdemeanor. Be prepared for these questions in an interview and on an application. If at all possible have an application e-mailed to you so that you can fill it out at your leisure.

RULE # 4: LEARN WHAT YOUR RIGHTS AND OPTIONS ARE. Law books are full of the rights of individuals and nowhere is this more true than in the employment arena. Again, do your homework. Learn what recourse you have if a potential employer denies you employment based on a negative background check finding. For instance, did you know that you have the right to actually see the background check report and to challenge its findings if they are incorrect? You should know everything that is in that report. You know where you worked, where you went to school what degrees and accolades you earned.

Conversely, you need to be aware of the rights of the employer to know about your past. For example most people believe that there are certain questions that an employer cannot ask of a previous employer. THAT IS SIMPLY NOT TRUE. It’s one of those urban legends that people think is true. A previous employer may refuse to answer the question, but a prospective employer can ask anything they want to.

I could write a whole article just on this question of what can be asked. Let me explain it simply. And employer can ask any question about your competency, character, work habits, attitude, etc. Most employers stopped answering those kinds of questions years ago, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be asked. In fact, a smart background checker will get those questions answered in some form even though a person has been instructed not to answer those type of questions. I always say that those ‘rules’ were started by lazy attorneys (you know, the ones who get paid the same if they work or not). They think that by telling supervisors in their companies not to answer those questions that they will prevent potential lawsuits from ex-employees. Well, what has happened is that more aggressive attorneys on the other side of the issue started suing companies that refused to give negative (but true) information on a previous employee, believing that by not answering a direct question they have, in fact, shifted liability to themselves. Another myth that virtually everyone believes is that an employer cannot ask your date of birth. NOT TRUE. They cannot discriminate based on your age (for that reason many don’t ask) but it is usually required for a criminal history report. Any employer that believes that date of birth cannot be asked probably also believes that their interviewer needs to be blindfolded so that, God forbid, he can’t tell a person’s sex or race.

We always suggest that a previous employer tell DOCUMENTABLE TRUTH. Example: If I ask a previous employer if there is anything that they can tell me about an applicant’s competency or character and they answer by saying, “He was a real bum. He was always late for work and didn’t care about his job.” That could get them sued, but if they answer with documentable truth such as, “We have a policy here that if you are late three times you are written-up. He was written-up three times in two years.” That can be documented.

What do you do if you have a major negative on your record such as a felony conviction for embezzlement and you are looking for work as an accountant? One suggestion is that you look into having yourself bonded at your own expense. That takes away the risk from the employer. The extra expense may be worth it to get the job you want.

In summary, if you plan ahead, do your homework, know and understand your rights and the rights of your employer you have a much better chance of surviving a background check.