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Advice / Job Search / Interviewing

This Is What Really Goes On During the Background Check Stage of the Interview Process

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If you’ve ever filled out an application for an apartment, you’ve probably been subject to a background and credit check. A potential landlord, understandably so, wants to make sure he’s not going to end up chasing down his rent money, and so he does his due diligence by calling references and checking your credit score. By learning about your past payment history and hearing what previous building owners have to say about you, he can determine whether you’re going to be a responsible tenant.

An employment background check is quite similar when you think about it. Once you’ve applied for the job, gone through the interview process, and submitted a list of professional references, you may be told that a background check is the next (and typically last) step. If you pass that, and we’ll get into what “passing” means soon, then that’s usually when you can expect to receive an offer.

Because a company that does background checks most often employs a third party, it’s unlikely that an organization is going to initiate this step unless it’s pretty certain you’re the best person for the job. Congrats—you’re so close to landing this job.

So, What Happens Between Now and That First Day at Work?

Along with fact checking your education and work history, the background check pulls up criminal records. (Oh, and when there’s a urine test involved, you can bet you’re being drug tested—but you probably figured that one out on your own.) However, another thing that most people don’t realize is that your credit history and score might also get assessed.

Now, assuming you’ve been truthful about your previous employment and where you obtained your degrees or other certifications and when, you’ve little reason to be concerned.

What Happens if You Have a Bad Record or Bad Credit?

Obviously, if you have any kind of criminal record—be it a misdemeanor when you were a senior in high school or a tax fraud charge five years ago—you may be understandably anxious. However, depending on the job description and the criminal charge, an employer could be in trouble if it automatically rejects you as a potential hire based on a certain conviction or record of arrest. This is according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and you’d do well to review your rights if you’re concerned about a blemish on your criminal record. With that said, because recreational drugs, such as marijuana, are still illegal in most of the United States, if you fail a drug test and find yourself waiting around for an offer that never surfaces, well, there’s probably not much you can do about that.

If you feel confident about breezing through the criminal check portion as well as the drug test, but are concerned about the repercussions of bad credit history, there’re a couple of things to keep in mind. For example, the purpose of this part: A prospective employer’s looking to hire a responsible person, so if it finds that you have messed up credit and insane debt, it might decide that you’re not fit for the job, even if the position in question isn’t directly related to money management. Fair? Not always. But something that you’re judged on? Unfortunately yes.

Is There a Way to Salvage Bad Results?

For starters, know your credit ranking and do your best to determine if it’s accurate. If you’re over-the-moon about a job and are at the employment background check stage of the process, perhaps you can try speaking up if something slightly unsavory is likely to pop up on your review. If you got your first credit card the day you turned 18 and had a two or three year learning period where you totally mismanaged your money, you might talk about that as an educational experience and what you’ve done to get on strong financial footing. Honesty can mean big things for your professional advancement. That mortgage payment you defaulted on with the partner that you lived with shortly after college? Surely, you learned a lot of lessons there; can you find a way to spin the story so that it demonstrates your problem-solving skills?

Read and observe the job situation and the hiring manager’s explanation of the background check. Educate yourself as much as you can about this next step in the process. Some large corporations may simply be ruling out anyone with a felony, or they may just really want to make sure you graduated cum laude from Dartmouth in 2013. Try to get a sense of how upfront and direct you should be about any little misstep that’s likely to show up.

Knowing your rights as well as your potential employer’s main concerns is a part of the job search process, even if it feels less intuitive than interviewing. If you’re fortunate enough to get all the way to this point, it’d be a shame to get knocked out of the running for something that can easily be discussed in a frank conversation. And really, if the organization is investing in the background check, chances are extremely high that it wants to hire you so try not to freak out about the standard process. You made it through the tough part; be confident that you can survive a little fact-checking.