Wouldn’t it be great if we could conduct background checks on our employers?
We can, of course, do this to a certain extent. We can Google the companies we’re applying to and find out more about the executives at those companies. In some ways, your job search is largely about vetting your employers and deciding whether or not you want to work there. But while we can do background checks through our research, we can’t conduct criminal background checks.
Your prospective employer, on the other hand, can conduct criminal background checks to vet you. Of course, you don’t have to comply – you can always refuse a background check. If you do, however, the folks who are thinking of hiring you will probably say “thanks, but no thanks” and move on to the next candidate.
Why employers run background checks is fairly obvious – they want to properly assess candidates to ensure they’re not going to cause problems. Theft and property offenses in workplaces are often caused by employees – just think of all the times you’ve heard of (or experienced) someone stealing pens, lunches out of the fridge, or worse!
Background Check Economics
Background checks aren’t free. An employer can choose to pay for their prospective employees’ background checks, or they can have their employees pay for their own.
Even if employers opt to ask their employees to foot the bill for criminal background checks, the process takes time – and as we all know, in the world of business, time is money. To complete a background check, employees need to get fingerprinting done, file for their criminal record check, and wait weeks before they get an answer back. During this time, they may be limited in what activities they can do – and that leads to less productivity for the employer.
With all of these delays and costs, why do employers bother with criminal background checks?
There are a couple of reasons. First, they may be required to conduct background checks in their industry. Second, they may be worried about the problems we discussed above: Theft, white-collar crime, or worse, violence in the workplace. Those costs can far exceed the costs of a background check, so many employers feel that criminal background checks are worth the money.
Background Checks and the Law
Heads up: This is not legal advice! Laws around background checks are complex and vary from state to state and region to region. We highly encourage you to speak to a lawyer if you want to know more about employment law and background checks in your area.
In general, an employer can ask you about your background. They can even ask questions about whether or not you’ve been convicted of crimes for which you haven’t been pardoned. They can ask you about speeding tickets, your driving record, and all kinds of other information. You don’t have to answer, and they don’t have to hire you. That’s all more or less above board (though check your state or region’s regulations to be sure). If the questions aren’t relevant to the position, you can press your prospective employer about why they’re asking.
What an employer cannot do, however, is ask you to consent to a criminal record check without having a valid reason to do so. That’s not an arbitrary distinction, either, and it’s certainly not one the employer can make for themselves. Employers need to consult a legal team to ensure that asking for a criminal record check is necessary for the position they are hiring for. Failing to do so can lead to human rights and invasion of privacy-related lawsuits – something no employer wants to deal with. Specifically, failure to do so can lead to Title VII violations – a serious matter.
Additionally, individuals cannot be singled out for background checks – if a position requires criminal background checks, all applicants must undergo the check.
All in all, background checks can be something of a legal quagmire for employers – but not performing background checks when necessary can lead to serious problems, too.
Related Article: 100+ Companies that Hire Felons & People with a Criminal Record
Background Checks and Finding the Best Candidate
Imagine this: You’re a candidate for a position in a job you’re excited about. You’re a perfect fit – you’ve got experience in the industry, you’ve got the skills and accreditations your prospective employers are looking for, and you love the company culture. The interviews are going great, and you look to be a shoo-in.
Then they tell you there’s just one more step: A criminal background check.
Now imagine you’ve been convicted of a crime. Maybe it happened decades ago. Maybe it was a marijuana conviction. For the purposes of our hypothetical, let’s say it has absolutely nothing to do with the career in question.
Will you consent to the background check?
A lot of people would say no. They might believe that consenting to a check would lead to them being disqualified from potential employment. They might simply feel uncomfortable with their employer knowing about their background, even if they remain convinced they can still get the position. They might worry about how it could affect career progression, salary, and more.
The stigma surrounding background checks may prevent employers from hiring the best candidates. As such, employers should strive to have open conversations with their candidates about the nature of background checks, the reason they’re being conducted, and what the candidate should expect from the process.
Background Checks Are Complicated
Employers have a lot of pros and cons to weigh when deciding whether or not to conduct background checks. As a candidate, you should be aware of these complexities – as well as your rights. If your employer is asking for a criminal record check, it’s highly likely there’s a very good reason for it!
We hope this article helped you clear up any misconceptions and has made you more confident in applying for your dream job.
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Amanda Kay, an Employment Specialist and founder of My Life, I Guess, strives to keep the "person" in personal finance by writing about money, mistakes, and making a living. She focuses on what it’s like being in debt, living paycheck to paycheck, and surviving unemployment while also offering advice and support for others in similar situations - including a FREE library of career & job search resources.