Employment background checks: what you need to know

From CareerOneStop.org, part of the CareerOneStop suite of web products, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration.


Background and other employment checks are a common piece of the job search process.

Many employers check into your background before making a job offer. Most often, this includes your past employment, your credit or financial history, or your criminal history. Read more about each of these below—in some cases, you’ll find that you can “pre-check” yourself to make sure no surprises come up during an employer’s check.

Your rights

You do have legal rights when an employer performs a background check on you. Employers are only allowed to ask about or check certain things, and they are only allowed to make hiring decisions based on certain data (for instance, they cannot base decisions on your age, race, religion, or disability status). The Federal Trade Commission has more information abut your rights regarding employment background checks

Employers cannot perform most of these checks without your permission. You may be asked to sign a document allowing the company to do a specific check. This can happen when you fill out a job application or submit a resume, or it can happen during the interview process.

Employment history checks

Employers verify past employment in several ways. The most common is to use databases of company payroll records and Social Security numbers to find your past jobs.

Also, a hiring manager might contact a past employer personally to verify employment. They usually talk to the human resources representative at your past employer.

In most cases, a past employer is allowed only to reveal the dates of your employment with that company, job titles you held, and if you are eligible for rehire. Any other details, including your job performance or reasons for leaving the job, are not discussed. Instead, your references may be asked about those topics.

Many employers also use E-Verify, from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, to determine whether candidates are legally eligible to work in the United States. You can visit myE-Verify to pre-check your work eligibility.

Credit checks

Some employers will check your financial history through a credit check.

It’s always a good idea to pre-check your credit history by ordering a free copy of your credit report. That way, you can fix any mistakes before an employer sees it—or you can be prepared to answer questions if you do have an issue in your credit history. Get your free credit report at www.annualcreditreport.com or 1-877-322-8228. This is a free service and you do not have to buy any products that they offer.

If you do see a mistake on your credit report, take action immediately. Learn how to dispute errors on your credit report from the Federal Trade Commission.

Criminal background checks

Many employers conduct criminal background checks. You do have rights regarding these checks. Learn about your rights regarding criminal background checks from the Federal Trade Commission. Read more about using arrest and conviction records in employment decisions from the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission.

If you do have a criminal background, visit CareerOneStop’s Job Search Help for Ex-Offenders for tips and resources, including how to talk about your conviction during a job interview.

Drug testing

An employer may require a drug test during the hiring process and after you’re hired. They are used to determine if someone has recently consumed alcohol, prescription medication, or illegal drugs. Employers are allowed to make hiring and firing decisions based on these tests. However, if the substance found in the test is an authorized prescription medication, the employer can not discriminate.

Employers can use several types of drug tests:

  • Pre-employment tests. An employer can decide to not make a job offer based on the results of a drug test given to a job candidate.
  • Reasonable suspicion and for-cause tests. When an employee shows signs of not being fit for duty or has a documented pattern of unsafe work behavior, the employer can issue a drug test.
  • Random tests. Employers might issue drug tests to all employees at unscheduled times. This discourages employees from using illegal drugs at any time.
  • Post-accident tests. An employer may test employees who are involved in an accident or unsafe practice incident to find out if alcohol or other drug use was a factor.

Each employer has its own policies regarding drug testing. You will know if a drug test is part of the hiring process. After hire, the company will give you a copy of their employee drug policies.


Jeff Altman, The Big Game HunterJeff Altman, The Big Game Hunter is a coach who worked as a recruiter for what seems like one hundred years. His work involves career coaching, as well as executive job search coaching, job coaching, and interview coaching. He is the host of “No BS Job Search Advice Radio,” the #1 podcast in iTunes for job search with more than 2000 episodes.

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Jeff Altman, The Big Game Hunter
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