What Is a Background Check? What Employers Look For and How To Prepare

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 16 August 2021

Some employers require background checks and others require that candidates for certain roles complete other in-depth verification. To protect both the employer and the candidate, these checks usually include criminal history and past employment information that is verified against other records such as credit history, education and references. Background checks are an important part of verifying the credentials of someone who is applying for a job. In this article, we discuss what employers look for in a background check, tips to prepare for a background check and what makes you fail a background check.

Related: What Is a Contract of Employment? (Your Ultimate Guide)

What is a background check?

A background check is the collection and inspection of public and private records by individuals or organisations. Companies may request background checks on potential employees who might be in positions where they have access to client or customer information, or where they will handle sensitive personal data.

What do employers look for in a background check?

The information in a background check varies depending on the type of job. A background check may include the following information:

  • Criminal history, including arrests and convictions

  • Driving history, including traffic violations

  • Personal debt collection history

  • Education history

  • Social media presence

  • Credit history

  • Employment history

  • Work authorisation

Related: The First 90 Days and How To Succeed in Your New Job

What you can expect from an employee background check

Employer background checks can occur in many industries. It's common to request a background report once an employer makes a conditional job offer. For example, if you're applying for a job that includes handling finances, property or sensitive information, you may find that an employer wants to run a background check before formally offering you the position.

Businesses may use background checks to check for fraud issues. Companies may do this to protect their company's reputation and also to find out how trustworthy their potential employees are. You may want to ask an employer these questions before completing a background check:

How long does the background check take?

Some background checks process instantly while others take several days. Depending on the information the company is looking for, the length of the background check can vary. Ask the hiring manager how long the process is so that you can properly prepare when you expect to hear about any potential job offer.

How often is the background check system updated?

Some background checks use systems that update more frequently than others. You may want to ask what company the employer uses for the background check so you can verify what information they collect and when it was last updated. For example, if you recently moved, the address inside a background check may be outdated.

What information do you need to process the background check?

Depending on the type of background check that is necessary, each background check may require different information. Be prepared to provide your personal identification, any government-provided documentation and your work authorisation statuses. Ask the hiring manager if you have any further questions.

Related: How To Write an Acceptance Email for a Job Offer

How to prepare for a background check

Background checks are an important part of the hiring process. They are significant for both the individual and the company they are applying to work for. Background checks may be more common in high-profile industries such as banking, healthcare and government. The following steps can help you prepare for a background check in advance:

1. Clean up your social media profiles and check your privacy settings

Today, it is common for hiring managers and recruiters to look at the social media profiles of job candidates. If there is information you don't want potential employers to access, make your accounts private and curate your content to manage what is publicly visible. However, you may want to use social media to network with employers and showcase your passion for your industry. If you want to use social media professionally, here are a few tips to try before an employer background check or interview:

  • Use a professional photograph**.** Consider using a professional headshot for any social media profiles that are public and could be accessible by a potential employer. You may wish to privatise personal accounts and restrict viewing access to friends and close connections.

  • Share industry-specific articles or updates**.** Try to post relevant content including sharing new blog posts or articles that you have written or links to interesting case studies that you can use as examples when applying for jobs.

  • Network with others in your industry**.** Using social media for networking may be helpful in the job search process, and it can also ensure that your professional social media profiles stay professional.

  • Be careful what you share online**.** Some companies may want to see what content you engage with online and what you share on your profiles. Consider being aware of what likes and shares you take part in on social media to keep your profile professional.

2. Keep accurate records of your academic history and past employment

Keep paper or secure digital copies of your academic transcripts and diplomas and hold onto pay stubs and other records that show where you have worked. Having the contact information of past employers and references at hand can help you accurately fill out job applications. Consider creating a paper or digital filing system that helps you retrieve documents efficiently.

3. Get copies of your records

It may be helpful for you to know what a potential employer can learn from your records. To do this, you may request information from various sources yourself. For example, many financial services companies provide you with your credit score free. You can get a copy of your driving record from your local agency. Consult with your local government for access to your criminal record, if you have one.

If you like, before you begin a job search, run a complete background check on yourself. This gives you the chance to spot and correct errors if there are any. They may be a charge for a background report, but it may help clarify questions you have about the process.

4. Be honest

If you know of something that may come up in your background check that could be a concern, discuss it with your potential employer. If companies specifically ask you about your past in an employment application, be honest. While policies vary from company to company, an employer is more likely to consider your candidacy if you address parts of your history while also explaining how you could fulfil your job duties.

5. Contact professional references

Contact your professional references and let them know companies may connect with them as part of the screening process. Verify that you have the most up-to-date contact information, including phone numbers and email addresses. Some companies may use electronic verification systems and require email addresses for references.

Related: How To Introduce Yourself to New Co-workers

What makes you fail a background check?

Background checks are important to ensure the safety of employees and employers. There are several reasons a background check might fail, including having incorrect dates or missing key information. Sometimes, background checks fail because of false information. Some reasons a background check may require additional information may include:

  • If a candidate has an arrest record

  • If the education information doesn't match what the candidate submitted

  • If the identification information is forged

Reasons to fail a background check might include not providing proper documentation or information, criminal record, or having an outstanding warrant out for your arrest. There are also situations where you might just not meet the qualifications of the job position.

Pros and cons of background checks

The benefits of background checks include finding out if a candidate has a criminal offence and gaining insight into any past work history. Background checks are not foolproof because they use online databases and information. Some information may be outdated, such as a person's name or address.

However, there are some potential benefits from background checks including:

  • Background checks may give employers peace of mind

  • Background checks may provide clarity about applicants' qualification

  • Background checks allow companies to make more informed decisions about hiring