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Employment Background Checks: What They're Really Looking For

Dear Evil HR Lady,

I have heard rumors that employers somehow snag your IP address from emails and can use that to track online activities. I have also heard that Goggle, for a small fee, will disclose any information they have on your online presence, however the sources of my information are vague. I don't know what is true nor how I should protect my identity. I do blog anonymously--no name, different email address. It is a blog that would likely cause an employer some concern since it discusses health issues.

My Facebook is innocuous and under my maiden name, which is not used for job applications.

What capabilities do employers really have to investigate online activities of potential employees?

Evil corporations are already out there, scouring the web for everything about you. They know that you looked at toenail fungus creams and they have already called the police because you did that search on body decomposition in 2007. Clearly, there must be a body in your backyard.

I'm sure all that's technically possible. And there might be some strange, security based company that wants to know that stuff. And who knows what a top secret security clearance will bring up?

But, in the real world, no one cares one whit about what websites you've visited, what you've purchased on Amazon, and what you write on your anonymous blog about your children, your post-nasal drip, and your annoying neighbor. 

They do care about your judgment, your public image, and your felonies. What a recruiter is likely to do is run a google search on your name, not on your IP address. If pictures of you smoking questionable substances (or heck, in some companies, smoking legal substances) show up, that's a problem. If your blog about how awful your current/last boss was pops up, that's a problem too.

What do companies look for in background checks? Well, they look for

  • Education verification (so don't lie about that degree, even if you're only 3 credits short)
  • Credit history (in relevant jobs, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission doesn't really like credit checks, so many companies don't use this tool)
  • Employment verification (did you really work at the companies you said you worked for, do your titles match what your resume says, and how long did you work there)
  • Criminal history (yes, that DUI will show up),
  • Certification/licensing verification (again, don't lie, and make sure they are up to date)
  • Driving record (if the job involves driving)

Most likely you'll also have to do a drug test and some companies require a physical exam. (This isn't an intensive exam, more of a "let's see if you have any problems to begin with" exam, so you can't sue us for problems you had before you started working here. For jobs that involve physical activity, these can be more important tools.)

As I said, the recruiter and hiring manager will most likely run your name through Google, so do that before you start applying for jobs and see what pops up. If you have a common name, they may or may not wade through the junk to figure out what is about you. If there is someone with your name who does bad things on the internet, you may wish to explain that this is not you. What you don't wanted do is include non work related blogs or Twitter accounts on your resume or cover letter. Yes, you may be proud of your writing, but if it's not related to your career, it's more likely to do damage than help.

Now, keep in mind that when companies do internet searches on candidates in addition to the official background check, what they are really looking for is evidence of good judgment, or rather lack of evidence of bad judgment. I know that the internet is forever, but if you have something up that really could be damaging to your career, you may wish to take it down and ask yourself, "Why am I putting things on the internet that I don't wish the world to know?" Remember, the internet is not private. It is very public. VERY.

So, no panicking, but show good sense.

Photo by Igor, Flickr cc 2.0

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