What Employers Can Ask When Checking Your Background

Words "Background Check" on a keyboard.
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What can employers ask about you when they check your background prior to offering you a job, or as a condition of employment? You may be surprised by how much information employers can learn. However, there are also some things an employer definitely cannot ask you because of state law. There are also federal laws that restrict how employers can look into your background and when they can perform checks.

Also, just because a prospective employer asks a question, does not mean your former employer has to answer it. Many employers have policies about background checks that limit the information they’ll share with another company.

Learn what employers can legally ask about you, how former employers (and other references) can answer, and how you can prepare for a background check.

Why Employers Conduct Background Checks

Why do employers want to know so much about you? Employers are cautious when bringing in new staff. They often conduct pre-employment background checks to make sure that there are no surprises waiting after they make a hire. It's much easier not to hire someone than it is to have to terminate them if a problem arises after they come aboard.


The type and quantity of information checked depends on the employer's hiring policy. The type of job for which you're being considered will also play a part. Some companies don't check applicants' backgrounds at all, while others scrutinize applicants very carefully.

What Employers Want to Know

In some cases, companies will simply verify basic information, such as places and dates of employment. In other cases, the company will ask for more information, which your previous employer and other sources may, or may not, disclose.

Here are some of the issues that employers might inquire about when checking on your background, along with information about what is illegal in some states, and what is less commonly asked:

  • Dates of employment
  • Educational degrees and dates
  • Job title
  • Job description
  • Why the employee left the job
  • Whether the employee was terminated for cause
  • Whether there were any issues with the employee regarding absenteeism or tardiness
  • Whether the employee is eligible for rehire
  • Salary (many employers will not share this information; in fact, it is not legal to ask in some locations)
  • Performance issues and problems (most employers will decline to share this information for fear of lawsuits for defamation)
  • Legal or ethical transgressions (some employers will not share this information for the same reasons mentioned above)
  • Credit history (depending on the job)
  • Criminal history (depending on the job and state law)
  • Motor vehicle records (depending on the job)

How Former Employers Can Answer

Keep in mind that, even if an employer asks for the background information listed above, and it is legal, the former employer does not have to answer.

Many companies limit what they will disclose about former employees. Sometimes this is for fear of lawsuits for defamation. Other organizations may not release information due to internal privacy policies. These companies often limit staff to simply sharing dates of employment and job titles when inquiries are made about former employees.


If you have concerns about what a current or former employer might share with a future employer about you, you can be proactive. During an exit interview (if you have one), ask what the company policy is regarding information they release to employers. If you have already left the company, call human resources, and ask.

Some states have enacted limitations on what employers can say about you. Check with your state labor office for more information on what former employers can legally share with others.

Third-Party Background Checks

Also, when employers conduct a check of your background (credit, criminal, past employer) using a third party, the background check is covered by The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). The FCRA is a federal act that seeks to promote fair and accurate private background checks. The act shapes what employers can ask for, receive, and use when conducting a background check through a third party.

The information contained in this article is not legal advice and is not a substitute for such advice. State and federal laws change frequently, and the information in this article may not reflect your own state’s laws or the most recent changes to the law.

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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “Background Checks.” Accessed Nov. 16, 2021.

  2. National Conference of State Legislatures. “The Gender Pay Gap.” Accessed Nov. 16, 2021.

  3. National Conference of State Legislatures. “Ban the Box.” Accessed Nov. 16, 2021.

  4. SHRM. “FCRA 101: How To Avoid Risky Background Checks.” Accessed Nov. 16, 2021.

  5. Federal Trade Commission. “Fair Credit Reporting Act.” Accessed Nov. 16, 2021.

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