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Background checks explained

Recently, I wrote about giving notice to resign from your job. Now, let’s shed some light on the process of background checks (verification) and reference checks. These are two separate but related things an employer will probably do before extending an offer of employment.

Why? Because employers want to validate their favorable impressions of you. THey want to feel good about hiring you: to confirm that you actually are “all that and a bag of chips.” They also want to ensure a sound and defensible hiring process and protect themselves from a number of potential risks posed by the threat of negligent hiring. Here’s more on why from HireRight.

In this post, we’ll discuss background checks, or employment verification. In my next post, we’ll tackle reference checks.

Here are some scenarios and recommendations to help you understand what’s happening and how to navigate the process.

SCENARIO 1: You’re looking to leave one employer for another. Say you’ve run the interview gauntlet, and it all went great. The recruiter calls you and says, we’re going to run your background check. They might invite you to complete some forms with demographic information, either via paper or online, along with a release authorizing them to obtain your background info.

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Most often, the background check is outsourced to a third party vendor who makes calls on the employer’s behalf. They will try to reach the HR or payroll manager at your current and perhaps several previous employers. They want to confirm that you actually worked there, and verify that the information you provided about your title, dates of employment, salary, and job duties match up with each employer’s record of your work.

Some employers outsource responding to such requests to companies such as The Work Number, which automates the process and shifts the burden away from the employer’s staff.


The third parties will also usually ask if you are eligible for rehire. However, most employers will not verify this either way, to avoid appearing to “blackball” anyone. (Except in the most egregious cases of firing for cause or gross misconduct). Checkers will ask anyway, because sometimes an employer will offer a response. But mostly, the response will be, “we can neither confirm nor deny based on company policy, without prejudice.”


They will want to verify any education, degrees, or certifications or professional licenses you claim to have. Plus your driver’s license and driving record, if the job requires operating a motor vehicle. They might also do a credit check if the job involves access to client or employee personally identifiable information, or financial information or money. (If they’re running a credit check, they must tell you ahead of time, provide the results, and comply with the FCRA – for more information, click here.) They might also run a criminal check, sex offender registry, or other public data.

Not to mention, they’ll probably Google you, too. (They want to see a “normal” online presence – not zero presence, that’s sketchy, and not a highly public one with lots of photos you wouldn’t want your grandma to see.)


It all comes down to this: When you submitted your application, you signed an affidavit that attests you are telling the truth, and you also authorized them to verify the facts. Your future employer wants to trust you, but to minimize their own risk, they want to confirm everything and be as certain as possible that you represent yourself accurately. Because sometimes, people lie.

As I tell my kids, it’s always better to tell the truth up front than to try and hide it.

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Be sure you list correct dates. If they’re off by a month or two, no big deal, but a year or more will be a red flag. Don’t fudge dates to try to cover up a gap between jobs.

Don’t lie about having a degree if you don’t. See the cautionary tale above. Also don’t lie about professional certifications.

If a previous employer is no longer in business or at the location where you worked, try to provide current contact information if possible, otherwise leave it blank with a note as to why. Third party vendors will do research to try and find someone who can verify. If they can’t, they may ask you for an old pay stub or your w-2 for that year. 

If you worked at a company through a temp agency or outside contractor, be sure to give the agency’s contact information. Whoever paid you is who needs to verify that period of work.

If you were self-employed for a time, you may be asked to provide business documentation such as a tax return, business license, or other verifiable proof.

Be sure to ask if you can delay the verification of current employment until after you receive the offer in writing. That shouldn’t be a problem because offer letters contain contingent language that gives the future employer an out should they discover any show-stoppers during background checking.

Here’s more guidance from Hire Right, a third-party verification service.

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SCENARIO 2: You lost your job involuntarily. Maybe you were fired and it wasn’t fair, but you chose not to make an issue of it. Or perhaps you were part of a layoff or reduction in force. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise: Perhaps you and your boss did not see eye to eye, or the work environment was super stressful for you. Now you’re job searching and wondering what they might offer during your background check, and you’re afraid they’ll give you a bad reference.

WHAT’S HAPPENING: Same as above – your future employer will still want to do a background check, and your former employer will still only verify the facts (dates, title, maybe salary). Again, the background checker will ask to verify eligibility for rehire, and it’s likely that the former employer will not verify that. Most don’t. 


You can ask, but the employer probably won’t oblige, because it isn’t true. Plus, if you want to file a claim for unemployment benefits, you need the employer record to show an involuntary separation. Again, most employers won’t verify the reason the job ended or eligibility for rehire. You can ask HR or your manager how they handle verifications in this case, and even ask them if they will simply decline to verify the circumstances around your departure, citing “company policy to not verify.” Look – there are worse things than having an involuntary separation on your record. It’s not likely to come back and bite you. Consider the whole experience a lesson learned and keep moving forward.


For a reference check, maybe. For a background check? No. the whole point of background checks is to obtain independent verification of the facts you provide.

Part two next week: All about reference checks.

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