What Is Included in an Employment Background Check?

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An employee background check is a review of a person’s commercial, criminal, employment, and/or financial records. Many employers conduct background checks on job candidates. Some employers conduct checks after they have hired an employee.

When employers use a third party to check someone’s background, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) restricts what they are allowed to check, and how. The FCRA is federal legislation that sets the standards for how consumer reporting is used in various capacities, including employment.

The best way to prepare for a background check is to learn your rights. Learn what employers are allowed to look into in a background check, when they have to notify you in advance, and what they have to share with you.

How Employers Conduct Background Checks

Before an employer conducts a background check on you, they must notify you in writing and get your written authorization.

However, if the employer is simply conducting inquiries on their own (rather than getting a report through another company), they do not legally have to ask for your consent. For example, they do not have to get your consent to call your former employer. They only need to notify you if they use a third-party employment screening company.


If an employer decides not to hire because of a consumer report, or decides to rescind a job offer, they must give you an “pre-adverse action disclosure.” This includes a copy of the consumer report and an explanation of your rights.

They must then give you an “adverse action notice” stating that they have decided not to hire you and let you know the contact information for the employment screening company they used. This will also include information on your right to dispute the report.

What Employers Can Check

A background check can range from a simple verification of your Social Security number to a much more thorough check into your history.

An employer might check on information such as your work history, credit, driving records, criminal records, vehicle registration, court records, compensation, bankruptcy, medical records, references, property ownership, drug test results, military records, and sex offender information.


Employers can also conduct a character check, which might involve speaking with your personal acquaintances, including friends and neighbors.

Generally, the information they check will be related to the job. For example, if you are hired to work in a bank, it would be reasonable for the employer to check whether you have a history of embezzlement or theft.

The extensiveness of a background check depends on the employer, company, and the job involved. For example, if you are applying for a government job with a high security clearance, you will likely undergo a very thorough background check.

Background Check Privacy

What can't be included in a background check? There is some information that cannot be disclosed under any circumstances. This information includes bankruptcies after 10 years, civil suits and civil judgments and records of arrest after 7 years, paid tax liens after 7 years, and accounts placed for collection after 7 years. However, these restrictions don’t apply if the salary is $75,000 or more.

School and Military Records

Employers can only look into certain records with your consent. For example, school records are confidential and cannot be released without the consent of the student. Military service records are also confidential and can only be released under certain circumstances. However, the military can disclose your name, rank, salary, assignments, and awards without your consent.


You cannot be discriminated against because you filed for bankruptcy; however, bankruptcies are a public record, so it is easy for employers to obtain the information.

Criminal Records

Laws also vary from state to state regarding some background checks. For example, some states don't allow questions about arrests or convictions beyond a certain point in the past. Others only allow consideration of criminal history for certain positions.

Medical Records

In many states, medical records are also confidential. But employers may not make hiring decisions based on an applicant's disability. They may only inquire about your ability to perform a certain job.

How to Prepare for a Background Check

The best way to prepare for a background check is to be aware of the information that an employer might find.

Get Your Credit Report

To check for any errors in your background information ahead of time, get a copy of your credit report. If there is erroneous information, dispute it with the creditor or other source.

Check Your Records

Check your motor vehicle record by requesting a copy of your record from your state department of motor vehicles. Do the same with your other records, including your education, court records, and more.

Review Your Personnel Files

If they are available, ask your previous employers for copies of your personnel files. Make sure you know what your references are going to say about you. (Here's even more information on how to prepare for an employment background check.)

Safeguard Your Privacy

In addition, it’s important to be careful what you post on social media and on other online platforms. The chances of someone finding information that could be damaging to your career are high. Your best bet is to be careful about what you post and to presume that what you post is public, despite any privacy settings you may have.

Be Honest

Most importantly, make sure your resume and job applications are accurate and truthful. If you lie, you might not get caught right away, but the truth will eventually come out. It's not worth not getting hired—or fired—because you thought your resume might need some enhancement.

Key Takeaways

  • An employment background check can include a review of a person’s commercial, criminal, employment, and financial records.
  • Employers may conduct a background check during the hiring process or after an employee is hired.
  • State laws vary regarding what information can be checked. 
  • The best way to prepare for an employment background check is to review your own records, so you know what to expect.
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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. FTC.gov. “Fair Credit Reporting Act.”

  2. SHRM. “FCRA 101: How to Avoid Risky Background Checks.”

  3. National Center for Education Statistics. “Protecting the Privacy of Student Education Records.”

  4. National Personnel Records Center. “Access to Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF) for the General Public.”

  5. Military OneSource. “Service Member Privacy Versus Public Access to Information.”

  6. United States Bankruptcy Court, Northern District of California. “Is Bankruptcy Information Available to the Public? Can Anyone Look at It?”

  7. Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute. “11 U.S. Code § 525.Protection Against Discriminatory Treatment.”

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