Background Checks: Who's Got the Dirt on You?

Last Updated Apr 20, 2010 3:03 PM EDT

Interviewing for a new position is daunting enough in the best of circumstances. Anybody who's been employed for a few years has experienced highs and lows; it takes presence of mind to give honest answers that celebrate the former while acknowledging the latter.

But what if you have some actual black marks on your record: an arrest, tax trouble, association with a company rendered toxic by scandal? And what if the problem spot on your record is inaccurate and something of which you're unaware? If you're operating at the senior level, you'll likely to be subject to extensive background checks that may uncover dirt you didn't even know was there.

This week, TheLadders talks to the professional investigators your next employer may retain to check up on you. In "Anatomy of a Background Check," they explain what records they review -- and what findings can actually hurt you.

[A background check will] turn up exaggerations or lies about your education or work history; a poor credit history; any lawsuits filed against you or those you've filed against others; and any sanctions or charges brought by any federal, regulatory or licensing agency, including state Bar Associations and the Securities and Exchange Commission, Thomas G. Martin, a former agent for the Dept. of Justice, now president of Martin Investigative Services, Newport Beach, Calif., and author of Investigator Confidential, told TheLadders' Kevin Fogarty.

A comprehensive search like that takes a lot of legwork and subscriptions to a variety of criminal, civil and demographic databases. However, what that research doesn't turn up, a little chat will.

"We've taught interview and interrogation to the Dept. of Justice and all over the world," Martin said. "A company will fly us in, and we can interrogate somebody and I will guarantee, knowing what questions to ask, how to ask and when to ask them, we will come out knowing everything there is to know about that person." Usually it takes an hour or less, he said.

The best defense is a good offense, investigators recommend: Run a check on your own background, and be ready to address any rough spots.

"Derogatory information honestly revealed and discussed by the applicant is much less harmful than if it's discovered by a third party," said Les Rosen, former California deputy district attorney; president of Employment Screening Resources of Novato, Calif.; and founding member of the National Association of Professional Background Screeners. "Even if the company's not really looking, one of the most productive sources of background checks is co-workers.

  • Matthew TheLadders

    Matthew Rothenberg is editor-in-chief for TheLadders, the world's leading online service catering exclusively to the $100K+ job market. In addition to traditional job search services, also provides a host of specialized career development resources. Previously he worked at Ziff Davis Media, ZDNet, CNET, and Hachette Filipacchi.