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Updated Nov 06, 2023

What Is a Criminal Background Check?

Background checks should remain an integral part of your hiring process. Learn why background checks are important and what type of information you can gain from them.

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Written By: Patrick ProctorSenior Writer & Expert on Business Operations
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Conducting background checks helps companies avoid dangerous, fraudulent and reckless behavior from job candidates and employees. Background checks are a common part of the recruitment process, verifying a job candidate’s identity and credentials, and flagging any concerning or criminal history. If you are a small business owner hiring new employees, you should run background checks on candidates to ensure you are bringing on qualified professionals.

What is a criminal background check?

Criminal background checks are primarily completed after a preliminary job offer has been extended, but before the candidate begins work. Employers run background checks on job candidates to ensure that there are no red flags and to determine the validity of the information the candidate provided in their application and throughout the interviewing process.

Although employers conduct background checks for many reasons, the data shows that an overwhelming percentage of employers conduct them. The Professional Background Screening Association (PBSA) found that 94 percent of surveyed employers used one or more types of employment background screenings. The same report shows that a growing number of employers conduct checks periodically throughout the employee’s time at the company.

What do background checks cover?

There are many types of data that make up most background checks. Typically, the same information is present on most background checks. For example, here are the most common data points in preemployment and/or general employment background checks:

  • Full legal name (and previous aliases or last names)
  • Social Security number
  • Date of birth
  • Criminal conviction record
  • Previous addresses

Note that if you run a background check on a subject who has lived in other countries or is working in another country, additional rules, regulations and stipulations apply. Most significantly, the U.K. and parts of Europe are now strictly governed by a privacy data law known as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) guidelines, which apply to all background checks affecting European Union citizens.

Editor’s note: Looking for the right background check service for your business? Fill out the below questionnaire to have our vendor partners contact you about your needs.

Why are criminal background checks important?

Background checks aren’t just a pointless step to add to your hiring process. They are valuable to organizations of all sizes. Here are some of the most important reasons why you should conduct background checks on future and current employees:

To improve or ensure quality of hire

Although you might like to think applicants are telling you the truth about their history and qualifications, 78 percent lie during the hiring process, according to Checkster. Preemployment screening can help verify that potential new hires have provided accurate information throughout the hiring process.

To protect employees, customers and the company

Employers have a legal responsibility to keep their employees and customers safe. As a result, you need to make sure you don’t let people with a violent history into your business. Maintaining workplace safety and reducing possibilities for injury or property damage is critical. Failure to do your due diligence can bite you in the back in the form of lawsuits and court cases.

To maintain your company reputation

Even though it can take years to build a great company reputation, that reputation is easy to lose overnight if organizational leaders are not doing their jobs. Background checks help ensure that anyone who joins your company will represent it well.

To reduce costs related to employee management

Although some employers might be concerned about employee theft, hiring the wrong person can cost your business in other ways. Bringing in someone with a criminal history could increase your insurance premiums, employee absenteeism and turnover, employee compensation, cybersecurity risks, and other work-related claims.

To comply with employment laws and regulations

In some cases, employers are required by law or industry stipulations to conduct a background check on a candidate prior to employment. This may apply to jobs in healthcare, education, law, financial services and other jobs that involve privileged access to sensitive information, money or children. [Read related article: What Is a Department of Transportation (DOT) Background Check?]

FYIDid you know
The PBSA report found that when employers were asked why they conduct background checks, the top three reasons cited were safety (83 percent), candidate quality (51 percent) and legal compliance (40 percent).

How far back do most background checks go?

How far back background checks go depends on the type of background check and the state where it is conducted. We have outlined the primary types of checks in the table below to lay out the timeframe and related exceptions.

Type of background check

Length of time covered

Preemployment background check

Preemployment background checks usually span seven years of criminal and court records, but they can cover a longer time span depending on compliance and industry laws, what is being searched for, and which state the search is conducted in.

Professional license verification

Generally, this check does not have a limit on time span, as verifications may need to be made throughout the subject’s lifetime.

Employment history and education

Generally, this check does not have a limit on time span.

Credit history check

Employment credit checks go back seven or 10 years, depending on the laws of the state where the candidate lives. Note that more states are beginning to restrict or narrow the scope of information related to credit data that can be reported on and for how long.

Driving history

Driving history checks may go back three to 10 years, depending on the state.

Social Security verification

Some background checks are designed simply to verify the SSN of the candidate to ensure that the person is who they say they are. These generally do not have a limit on time span.

Drug testing

Although drug tests do not check a person’s history, they are common in preemployment and current employment relationships.

Did You Know?Did you know
Although drug testing is a relatively common form of preemployment screening, many companies are eliminating or ignoring results from marijuana drug tests specifically, due to the widespread decriminalization and legalization of the drug.

There is a school of thought referred to as the seven-year lookback rule. Some states have taken a hard stance on limiting employers’ views of criminal convictions. Although credit checks, governed under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), allow creditors to look further back in some cases, there is a growing push to limit the criminal records employers can check to the past seven years. Though the exact laws on this vary from state to state, they fall under the umbrella of the Ban the Box movement, which seeks to end the stigma of conviction or arrest records for job candidates.

How long do criminal background checks take?

Although many background checks can be processed and return results in three to five days, some can take longer. For example, FBI background checks usually take around 30 days to complete. Although some federal background checks can be processed more quickly, it is best to plan for the comprehensive review that requires a 30-day wait.

Another delay in processing background checks, either for pre-employment purposes or for current employees, has to do with the number of states where the subject has lived. The more states they have lived in, the more databases there are to query, and the longer it can take to compile the necessary data. This is the most common delay in background checks.

Also, some background checks require several different data points (e.g., criminal background and credit checks). The more requests you place within a single background check, the longer the process might take.

How do you conduct a criminal background check?

First, you need to establish the steps that your company should follow for background checks on job candidates or current employees. We highly recommend you create and maintain a criminal background check policy that lives in your employee handbook. You can find extensive templates online, but your company policy for criminal background checks should at least include these steps:

  1. Get the subject’s acknowledgement. Inform the subject that you intend to process a background check and have them sign a release. Never move forward with the background check before you have the subject’s signature. Spoken approval is not adequate acknowledgment; you need it in writing. This federal law is governed by the FCRA.
  1. Stick to the agreed-on scope. Ensure that the background check matches the details and description of the background on the release that the subject signed. Do not extend beyond this established scope.
  2. Contact your third-party partner. Third-party background check companies are the way to go, and the internet is replete with good options. We recommend partnering with a reliable background check company that has solid ratings and has been in business for a long time. We do not recommend visiting all the federal, state and industry-specific websites required to run a thorough check; let an expert third party manage this action for you.
  3. Review the record. Once the check is complete, the background check company will either email the results to you or share them with you on a secure server. Review the content for any surprises or concerns.
  4. Inform the subject of the findings (with a copy of the report, if necessary). If you have no concerns and nothing to discuss, you are free to proceed with the hiring process. However, if there are items of concern on the report, especially ones that would warrant either a candidate’s elimination from an employment opportunity or a current employee’s dismissal, the law entitles the subject to receive a paper or electronic copy of the entire background check.
  5. Include all related data in your recruitment file. Regardless of the background check’s findings or whether or not you hire the candidate in question, keep a record of it or the review itself in their recruitment and/or personnel file. If your company maintains a supervisor employee filing system, then this record should be retained in the HR-only file.
TipBottom line
According to the PBSA, nearly 75 percent of employers have a documented screening policy. A documented and consistent policy can help protect your business.

What are red flags on a background check?

When conducting a criminal background check, employers typically want to consider convictions, not arrests or other charges. An arrest does not mean someone was convicted of a crime. Convictions, or cases in which the accused was found guilty, are the primary concern of a criminal background check.

Here some common red flags that warrant, at a minimum, discussion with the subject and, at worst, removal from consideration for the job:

  • Convictions that the subject did not share previously. If convictions that the subject did not previously disclose show up on the review, then removing the subject from all employment opportunities at your company is the right move. 
  • Lack of evidence relating to certification, license or any other education. If you are unable to confirm any certification, license or degree that the candidate claimed to have on their resume, in their cover letter, or during their interview (whether the job requires that credential or not), discuss the discrepancy with them to find out why.
  • General discrepancies. If a subject leaves out states they’ve lived in or misrepresents durations of time, employers they’ve worked for, or certain other details, follow up with them about it. If a candidate is vague on facts and details during the application and interview process, you may wonder what they’ll be like to work with.
  • Multiple bankruptcies or other financial concerns. Low credit scores do not automatically reflect a poor job candidate, nor do other aspects of a credit report’s findings. As the employer, you won’t see the subject’s credit score anyway, but you might see other signs of financial distress (e.g., making late payments or using credit heavily). We recommend two things here: First, never pass on a great candidate if all you have against them is a record of late payments on a credit report. Second, we only recommend conducting financial background checks (e.g., credit checks) for finance-related positions, such as CFOs, accountants and bookkeepers. Credit reviews are not necessary for many other roles. 

Background checks help business owners and hiring managers confirm that their selected candidates are trustworthy and high-quality choices for the job. Nowadays, there is little reason not to complete preemployment background checks on promising candidates. This extra step in your hiring process is likely to prove valuable as you build your team for the future.

Skye Schooley contributed to the reporting and writing of this article.

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Written By: Patrick ProctorSenior Writer & Expert on Business Operations
Patrick Proctor is a human resources and people operations expert with SHRM-SCP certification and an MBA in business management. He has spent nearly 20 years leading HR for organizations of varying sizes, some international. He advises on regulatory compliance, workforce management, aligning strategic business objectives with human capital initiatives and more. Proctor is passionate about helping businesses establish employee-centric workplace cultures that increase team member satisfaction while also maintaining cost efficiency and improving ROI. He also enjoys integrating distributed teams and developing the next generation of leadership. He has written about workplace issues for publications like Entrepreneur and sits on the boards of advisors for people management company ChangeEngine and UC Santa Barbara's Professional and Continuing Education program.
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