How Do Background Checks Work? Part 1.

Get a Solid Overview of Common Pre-Employment Screenings

Background checks, background checks. Most people have a hazy idea of what they are thanks to their descriptive name. But how do background checks work exactly?

This post will pull back the curtain on several common pre-employment screenings. Below, we'll discuss the following:

    How background checks work in general

    How criminal background checks work

    How social media background checks work

Stay tuned for part two of this article series, where we'll cover how MVR checks, drug tests, and employee verifications work.

Let's get to it!

How do background checks work in general?

First, let's talk about why employers run background checks in the first place.

Like resumes and job applications, background checks offer another input for HR managers to consider during the hiring process. Things learned during a background check—such as the candidate's criminal history and past employment—can provide valuable insight into the candidate's character, qualifications, and whether they'd be a good fit for the company.

Is it legal for employers to require background checks?

Yes. As the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) explains, it's perfectly legal for employers to ask candidates about their background or to require background checks. (Of course, employers have to follow the rules! More on this below.)

Can candidates refuse background checks?

Yep. As the FTC explains, candidates have the right to refuse background checks. But candidates must also accept the possibility they won't get the job because of their refusal. (It's perfectly within the employer's rights to pass over a candidate who refuses a background check.) 

Do employers need to get permission from candidates to conduct background checks?

As a general rule, yes.

When employers hire a background check company (like Good Egg) to investigate a candidate's background and generate a report, the employer must get written authorization from the candidate to conduct the background check. (In some jurisdictions, this step cannot be performed unless a conditional offer of employment has been made to the candidate.)

Permission is needed because people have rights concerning the information that's gathered about them and released in a report to a third party. That's what the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) is all about. Its main purpose is to protect the information that consumer reporting agencies (CRAs) collect about people. (Background check companies are considered CRAs.)

How do background check companies obtain written authorizations from candidates?

Different background check companies will have different processes for obtaining written permission from applicants.

At Good Egg, we strive to make it easy for employers and their candidates, which is why we offer candidate text messaging.

Basically, the whole background check process is kicked off via a text message. The candidate receives a link via text on their phone and can review relevant disclosures and electronically sign necessary authorizations. Background checks that are initiated via text are completed much faster than by email or paper methods.

Can employers legally reject a candidate based on negative information in a background report?

It depends. The EEOC explains that sometimes it's legal for an employer not to hire a candidate because of information in the persona's background, and sometimes it is illegal.

Here, the EEOC illustrates an illegal rejection: "For example, it would be illegal to reject applicants of one ethnicity with criminal records for a job, but not reject other applicants with the same criminal records."

What is the employer required to do if they reject a candidate because of information obtained in a background report? 

If the employer rejects the candidate because of info obtained in the background check, the employer must give the candidate a copy of the report and a "notice of rights." This pre-adverse action notice tells the candidate how to contact the background check company in case of an error in the report. The candidate has the right to have the error corrected and to have the corrected report sent to the employer.

Do employers need to use background check companies to conduct background checks?

It's the smart way to go—and the best way to maintain compliance, provided you're working with a reputable background check provider. Reputable companies have a deep understanding of all the complexities, nuances, and laws and can guide you on what you can and can't legally do.

OK. The above was a general overview of how background checks work. Now, let's discuss how specific background checks work.

For the sake of brevity, we're not going to re-hash the point about getting permissions, even though that's the critical first step in all of the background checks we discuss below.

How do criminal background checks work?

This is often what people are talking about when they say "background check."

Long considered the gold standard, a criminal background check helps an employer assess whether previous behavior could negatively affect a candidate's ability to fulfill the responsibilities of the position and/or pose a potential risk to clients and co-workers.

While not foolproof, past behavior is often indicative of future behavior.

    GOOD TO KNOW: In many states and localities, the criminal history check cannot be performed unless a conditional offer of employment has been made.

What's included in a criminal background check?

The most common background check consists of criminal history searches in counties where a candidate has lived in the past seven years. These county searches are often supplemented with a nationwide criminal history database search, which provides a quick, affordable method to search for criminal history information that may be recorded in jurisdictions outside the candidate's address history.

The scope of a criminal background check can be adjusted based on the client's requirements, including the expansion of the address history from seven to 10 years; the inclusion of address history for locations where a candidate has worked or attended school; and the addition of searches, such as federal criminal, sex offender database, and/or sanction searches. (We always recommend including searches of the sex offender database.)

Are there different types of criminal record checks?

Yes. Below, we review the different types of criminal record checks.

County criminal check. This is a county-level court search for criminal convictions and reportable non-convictions associated with the applicant. The scope of the search is seven years.

State criminal check. This is a statewide search (obtained directly from a state police department or state repository) for criminal convictions and reportable non-convictions associated with the applicant.

    GOOD TO KNOW: Statewide criminal searches are not universally available. Some states do not offer the service. Some require a protracted and expensive process (like the submission of fingerprints by the candidate). Some have data repositories that are not updated on a regular basis, so they are unreliable sources of information for background checks.

Turnaround time varies based on the jurisdiction or state that's being searched and the available research method.

  • Automated counties/states are returned the same day/next day.
  • Counties/states with on-site public access terminals used by court runners are returned in 1-3 days.
  • In counties/states where information is only available by placing a request with the court clerk or state police ("clerk-assisted"), the turnaround can extend from several days to several weeks.

Federal criminal check. This is a nationwide search for crimes prosecuted against the applicant at the federal level, in any U.S. state or territory, which include tax evasion, bank robbery, kidnapping, and/or counterfeiting. The scope of the search is seven years. The turnaround time is 1-2 days unless additional research is needed, which could extend the turnaround to 5-7 days.

Federal criminal checks are conducted as name-match-only searches. When a match is found, additional research is conducted to determine if the match is, in fact, the candidate.

Nationwide criminal check. This is a nationwide criminal database search for criminal history information associated with the candidate's primary and alias/maiden names in jurisdictions that fall outside the candidate-provided address(es) and address history obtained from the social security number trace.

The nationwide database is a compilation of information from various sources, including county and state criminal history repositories, department of correction records, and state sex offender registries. The frequency of the database updates is not readily known, and data is not considered a primary source.

Because the results of the nationwide database search aren't considered a primary source, results are not displayed to the client. Instead, the information obtained is used as a "pointer." Any reportable criminal history information found that closely matches the candidate's name and personally identifiable information (PII) is validated at the primary source, i.e., by processing a county criminal search, to determine if the information is reportable to the client.

    GOOD TO KNOW: This is precisely why you should avoid using those "instant" national criminal background checks that you might see advertised online. Those "instant" checks pull from this database, which, again, is a compilation of many sources (not the primary source). Plus, no one knows how often it's updated.

Want to dig deeper? Download our Ultimate Guide to Criminal Background Checks.

How do social media background checks work?

It's impossible for a human being to perform a compliant and comprehensive search of a candidate's social media footprint. The online world is simply too vast. And even if you could do it yourself, you'll encounter protected class information that you can't "unsee" and that could land you in legal jeopardy.

Luckily, software solutions exist that can bridge the gap. (Note: We can only speak about how our solution works.)

At Good Egg, we deploy a full-featured, cloud-based platform that uses advanced machine learning for text and image content analysis. This solution combines advanced machine learning with human analysts to analyze up to 10 years of public posts from a candidate's Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, TikTok, and Reddit. Things that are analyzed include original posts, likes, comments, replies, and reposts along with the images on each post.

Types of content that's flagged:

  • Hate speech
  • Political speech
  • Insults and bullying
  • Obscene language
  • Self-harm
  • Sexual impropriety
  • Terrorism/extremism
  • Threads of violence
  • Toxic language
  • Narcotics
  • Drug-related images
  • Violent images/racy images

In addition, our solution can flag posts based on matches (text or images) to custom keywords that the employer provides. Keywords can be designated negative, positive, or neutral.

Our social media background checks are also capable of searching for any news and related web articles about your candidate. This can potentially surface positive things—for example, an article about a candidate's charity fundraiser. This might provide key insights into a person's character.

We generate a report that flags posts according to the above criteria, and we redact protected class information, such as race, color, age, sex, religion, disability, and so forth. Employers get the insights they need to make better hiring decisions while protecting the job candidate's right to privacy.

Want to dig deeper? Download our guide: 8 Social Media Screening Myths, Busted 

Have any other questions about how background checks work?

Whatever questions you have or hiring challenges you're facing, we can help! Get in touch and let's chat about your screening needs.

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Mariah Barr

Posted by Mariah Barr

Mariah Barr is the Content Marketing Writer at Good Egg. She's played a few roles in her professional life, but they’ve always involved writing interesting and informative pieces. Outside of work you can find her walking her dog or working on a DIY home improvement project.

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