What happens on a pre-employment background check?

When you receive a job offer there is often a line in the offer letter that says, "This offer is contingent upon completion of a successful background check." Just what is involved in that? What can you expect to be uncovered?

Many people are concerned that if they leave a short term job off their resume or neglect to mention the job where they were fired, it will show up in a background check. This is unlikely, as it's not like an FBI investigation into your life. Remember that resumes are marketing documents and you're not required to put anything negative on them, but if asked to list all positions, you should, since you can be fired for dishonesty if you don't. But, it's not likely to show up in a background check.

But what can you expect? Attorney Johanna Harris allowed me a sneak peak at her new book Use Protection: An Employee's Guide to Advancement in the Workplace, to explain just what to expect in a background check.

Criminal records. This is usually a first stop for employers. How far back and what crimes employers can consider largely depends on state laws. If you have a criminal record, Harris advises you put together a document that explains exactly what happened and is supported by the evidence. That is, don't just write up your version of events, include court documents. The EEOC has been cracking down on employers that place to much emphasis on criminal backgrounds, so expect employers to be less strict.

Credit checks. This is another area the EEOC is concerned about -- for the same reason as criminal records -- it has a disparate impact on African American job candidates. Not every company uses credit checks and even among those that do, they generally don't check every job candidate's records. But, if they do, what are they looking for? Harris writes: "It is unlikely that an employer would hold a late credit card payment against you." But if it's gone to collection or court, employers may not be willing to overlook it. Student loan defaults, she says, are also something employers look at. However, if your debt is due to medical bills or other emergencies, employers tend to not be as harsh, she says. One thing about credit checks -- you have to authorize them to do so. Best bet? Run your own credit before applying for a job.

Education, certification and licenses. If you lie about that degree -- even if you were only 6 credits short, your potential employer will find about about it. Didn't pay that final library fine at your university? Harris cautions that your school may claim you never received your degree. Clear all those things up before applying for a new job. Most certifications and licences are public records and are easy to verify. Bottom line, Harris says, don't lie about your education or try to hide a disciplinary history. It's easy to find.

References.  Many people are under the impression that employers can only confirm dates of service and titles. This is false, false, and false. Company policy may prohibit managers from speaking out, but most do anyway. Which means, don't burn bridges and always work hard. Harris also cautions that employers can and do search your "electronic trail." Things like tweets, videos, blogs and anything that hits the internet are easy to find. Clean up your trail (the best you can) before applying.

Military records. Harris states that employers are pretty limited in what they can find out about -- just rank, salary, duties and awards. She reminds that "it is illegal for an employer to deny you a job because you might be called up to active duty."

Bankruptcy. These records are publicly available, but, according to Harris, employers cannot hold a bankruptcy against you.

Driving records. These are also public records and subject to employer discretion. Bottom line? That DUI may prevent you from getting a job.

Medical records. These are off limits in a background check. Employers may ask you if you can perform the duties of a job, and you can answer yes, or no. If you answer yes, they have to take your word for it. There is an exception, though, according to Harris. As long as they require everyone who works in this or a similar job to undergo a medical exam, they can make that a requirement for the job. That is, if you come in limping, they can't require a medical exam unless they require everyone to have a medical exam.

Drug testing. Pre-employment drug testing is legal. Period. If you're taking a prescription for something normally caught in a drug test (like prescription pain killers or medication for ADHD), you will be required to provide proof that it's a legal prescription. This can be as easy as showing your prescription bottle with the proper information attached. 

So, if your job offer has the background contingency as part of it, this is what you can expect. If you're going to have any problem with any of these sections, start working now to clean up your record. Even old convictions can be expunged in many cases.