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Conducting an employee background check ensures that job candidates are who they claim to be, but the checks must be done carefully and legally. — Getty Images/MangoStar_Studio

Finding a job candidate with the right combination of skills, interests and values takes time and patience. Even when you think you’ve found the perfect person, you can’t be sure they are who they claim to be — unless you run a background check. Resumes are not always completely truthful, so it’s wise to go a step further and verify the information your candidate has provided about themselves.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 69% of organizations conduct criminal background checks on their job candidates. If you want to get an accurate, complete picture of your potential employee, here’s how to conduct a legally compliant employee background check.

[Read: 3 Things You Need to Know About Hiring in 2019.]

What does a background check include?

Before you conduct an employee background check, you’ll want to understand what information you might uncover. Hiring site Indeed says a typical background check may include the following, depending on the position:

  • Criminal records.
  • Credit history.
  • Employment history.
  • Work authorization.
  • Education history.
  • Driving records.
  • Medical records (restrictions apply).

It’s also important to note the information you won’t have access to in a background check. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) states that an employer must obtain the applicant’s consent to access consumer reports, school records or military service records. While you can access certain criminal records, they must be recent (no older than seven years old), unless the job position’s salary is over $75,000. Some states enforce further regulations beyond the FCRA.

Familiarize yourself with any laws governing the use of employment background checks, including all applicable federal, state and local regulations.

The do's and don'ts of background checks

To help you guide you through your employee background check process, we outlined some criteria based on the federal guidelines set forth by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).


  • Be consistent. Make sure you follow the same process and comply with the same background check policies for each applicant, regardless of age, sex, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, family status, disability and other protected classes.
  • Proceed with caution when making hiring decisions about protected class individuals. The EEOC prohibits employment discrimination based on the above-listed characteristics, so if you have to make an adverse hiring decision, be sure you can back it up with a legitimate business reason that cannot be construed as discriminatory or disadvantageous to a particular demographic group.
  • Follow the law. Familiarize yourself with any laws governing the use of employment background checks, including all applicable federal, state and local regulations.


  • Phrase your questions in ways that could get you in trouble. Don’t ask any questions that might encourage a candidate to reveal personal information that falls under the EEOC’s protected characteristics. For instance, you can’t ask someone outright how old they are, but you can ask how many years they’ve been in the workforce.
  • Neglect communication about background check results. Should you find any issues in a background check that cause you to deny someone employment, the FCRA requires you to inform the candidate and give them a chance to explain themselves. You must also provide them with any information uncovered during the background check process that impacted your decision.
  • Don’t ask about criminal history on the application. An increasing number of states now have “Ban the Box” laws. These laws prohibit employers from asking about a candidate’s criminal convictions during the application process. While there is no such federal law, avoiding questions about a person’s criminal record until after a background check has been conducted makes it far less likely that you will unfairly exclude a convicted candidate from consideration up front.

[See more on understanding employee background checks.]

Background checks might seem intimidating, but when conducted responsibly, they can save your business from potential employment issues down the road. If you follow these best practices, you shouldn’t run into any issues or liabilities, or experience any concerning pushback from either the law or the candidate being reviewed.

CO— does not review or recommend products or services. For more information on choosing the best background check services, visit our friends at

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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