What's more Dangerous than Govt Files on you? Employers' Files

by Phil Baker

Employers pose a bigger threat to your future success than governments when it comes to your personal information. It's interview time - you`re not invited because of a misprint from a database you`ve never heard of before. No-one will call, nobody will write you. Here's what you need to know.

While most have been worrying about the personal info the government gathers on us, our blindspot was turned on employers. Did you know that an increasing amount of employers are conducting extensive and invasive background checks, using new data services and Internet detectives? lens Why should you care? They often make decisions on whether to invite you in for an interview and later, whether to award you the job based on database information. Fairplay? I don't think so. You should know what they're up to behind closed company doors. To help you balance the game in your favour, I've detailed exactly what they're checking, and what you need to know to ensure you don't lose out on a great job, due to a misprint.

Some people think that just because they have done nothing wrong, they have nothing to worry about. Think again. The law won't always come to your rescue, as many areas of the law haven't caught up with the net and current practices yet.

What Are Employers Checking?

The amount of information included in your background check will vary, based on the sources utilized by the employer:

  • Educational Records - These are used primarily for verification of your educational claims. SAT scores are often available. Past employment verification and behavior, including reasons for dismissal are probed. Employers and hiring agencies are aware that in certain states, laws provide legal immunity to former employers who divulge information to prospective employers. You can be sure they will make your former employers aware of this when they check your references.
  • Criminal and Incarceration Records. Arrest records by Federal and State searches. Some county records are not available but this is rapidly changing. There are laws that should prevent an employer from considering certain information, but there is no way for you to know whether such information will be revealed in a background check. With the advent of the Internet have come a growing number of services and databases, with unverified and inaccurate information. For example, if you were arrested but never convicted, a data search could reveal the arrest, but not that you were acquitted, or that charges were dropped.
  • Litigation and Court Records - Employers sometimes want to identify candidates who have filed discrimination, sexual harassment, or qui tam lawsuits.
  • Driving and Motor Vehicle Records - Employers hiring for positions that do not involve driving, still want to know if you have a recent DWI or DUI.
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  • Drug Testing - Used for a variety of reasons--corporate ethics, measuring potential employee performance, and keeping liability to a minimum.
  • Financial Information and Records: credit scores, liens, judgments, and bankruptcy may be included in the report. The employer might also request or conduct a credit check. Unless you are applying for a position at a bank, operating a cash register, or going to be working in security, this might not seem relevant. However, employers have several reasons to examine your credit report. Why? One reason is to determine if the candidate is responsible. After all, if you cannot perform math functions, keep the current date, track bills, or manage yourself, can you really manage anything? Some positions require the employee to handle cash or be responsible for transactions. Most businesses do not want an employee with financial issues in charge of their money. If you don't use credit, an absence of an established credit record can be used against you, by the employer.
  • Friends and Neighbours - Under the FCRA, a background check that is called an "investigative consumer report"is legal. It includes interviews with "neighbors, friends, or associates" about your "character, general reputation, personal characteristics, or mode of living". When this type of report is conducted about you, the FCRA requires a separate disclosure. You are also legally entitled to know the "nature and scope" of such an investigative consumer report, but you will have to ask.
  • Insurance Records - A history of worker compensation claims could be considered a red flag. In most states when an employee's claim goes through the state system or the Workers' Compensation Appeals Board (WCAB), the case becomes public record. However, an employer may legally only use this information, if an injury might interfere with one's ability to perform required duties. Under the Federal Americans with Disabilities Act, employers cannot discriminate because of any medical information, or the fact a candidate filed a workers' compensation claim.
  • License Records - Verification of professional licenses held.
  • Military Service Records - Verification. Under the Federal Privacy Act, service records are confidential and can only be released under certain circumstances. Without the applicant's consent, the military may release name, rank, salary, duty assignments, awards, and duty status.
  • Social Security Number (or equivalent outside the U.S.) A fraudulent SSN is enough to rule you out.

There are many background check services that specialize in employment screening. There are several types. These include: private investigators, data brokers, and many thousands of affiliate websites.

Some larger companies contract with background check companies or use an affiliated company. Unfortunately, more often than not, few of these companies have actually collected any of the information they hold on you. Your personal and public records are sold and resold. Employers do not always comply with federal and state laws, especially the provisions that require up to date accuracy, of background check reports.

How much personal information should a potential employer have access to? The US government continues to stress the importance of protecting national security. People who have worked in the government sector have been exposed to invasive background checks, but for most people, a complete background check is a new experience.

There are many factors influencing the changes in attitude we have, towards our security background checks. Terror activity, violent rages and shootings, Illegal weapons, drug trafficking and money laundering, are some of the reasons we have become more accepting of such personal investigations.

man bars

Sad Story: A friend of mine had a booming computer networking business that was growing fast. He needed to add to his experienced work force. He told me, "After several lean years, this is a good problem to have." He soon hired more than a dozen new employees. He had each candidate complete an application and was proud to interview each one personally.

One new hire had claimed he had several years of experience. Unfortunately, as things turned out, this was not the only lie on his application. This new employee was assigned to one of the firm's biggest clients, a stock brokerage. A few months later my friend was served with a subpoena. Seems his new employee had been accessing his client's database from outside the company and selling stock data. My friend discovered at the trial, that this was the defendant's second such conviction in ten years. Negligence was alleged against my friend's hiring practices, for failing to search criminal records. He spent so much money and time in defense that he lost his business.

Employers today have legitimate reasons to worry about who they are hiring. Employers are limited to what interview questions they are allowed to ask, regarding a host of subjects about the applicants, including the use of drugs and alcohol. Yet employers have become increasingly liable for the actions of their employees.

Employers want to confirm resume criteria and application information, such as past employers and addresses to verify your stability. For legal and insurance reasons the employer always wants to minimize their liability. When something goes wrong, the question will be: Did the employer do everything in their power to prevent such an occurrence when hiring?

Violence in the workplace, white-collar criminal activity including embezzlement, dishonesty, theft, violation of the information privacy law against clients and other employees, sexual harassment, and negligence are just some of these actions. Employees who commit these acts, cost employers billions of dollars each year. Mostly in out of court settlements - (the type that don't make news headlines). In order to protect themselves, employers have spent a substantial deal of time and money. They develop and use elaborate screening procedures, psychological assessments, polygraph tests, background checks, and interview techniques.

Anyone could experience circumstances that cause credit trouble. We all need to make every effort to maintain good credit. Regarding your credit report - just be aware of what's printed on it. You will work way too hard to get interviews, and without you even knowing it, a blurb of information floating around somewhere, rules you out. What are employers going to find out about you from a background check, credit report, or previous employer? You should know. Even if there is erroneous information being reported about you, you should make sure you know first. Get a copy of your report or file before the interview.

You are entitled to receive a free copy of your "file", maintained by a "nationwide specialty consumer reporting agency" that sells employers background checks. Your "file" is not the same as your "report". The "report" is the document the background check company sells to the employer. The FCRA gives you the right to receive a copy of your "report" directly from the employer," but only if the employer issues an "adverse action." Your "file" is defined in the FCRA as ".all of the information about you retained by a consumer reporting agency", regardless of how the information is stored. You are entitled to see your "file," whether or not the employer gives the "adverse action" notice. If you are asked to submit to an employment background check, ask the employer for the name of the company that will do the check.

Annual File Disclosure

paper mask

By law you are entitled to a free copy annually of the following reports:

  • Credit Report
  • Medical records or payments
  • Residential or tenant history
  • Cheque writing history
  • Employment history
  • Insurance claims

A potential employer is required to notify you in writing and obtain your written permission, if they are conducting a background check that involves your credit report. Not all employers follow this rule. There are now endless ways to obtain information about anyone, without their knowledge, via the Internet.

Employers cannot legally turn you down for a job because you filed bankruptcy. In addition, if you are not hired because of any information they obtain about you, they are required to provide you with the information so that you may challenge it. However chances are, if they obtained the information illegally, they are not going to inform you of what they found.

You provide most of the information employers verify. Job applications themselves serve as great tools for checking your information. Employers use job applications to check what you have written with your resume and what they have found.

Ten Ways a Job Application Is Used For Screening

  1. The education dates do not correspond with the birth date. Ten year olds seldom graduate from college.
  2. Education dates do not conform to dates of employment or to home addresses.
  3. The telephone prefix does not correspond with home or work address. Cell phone numbers can rule this one out.
  4. Time lived at home addresses do not correspond with employment dates. Example: Time at present residence is two years, yet work experience shows the last job, was located on the opposite coast and the termination date was six months ago.
  5. The work history is not in harmony with the resume.
  6. Degree is not listed at educational institution.
  7. Time spent in school does not conform to degree.
  8. Technical or professional skills claimed, could not derive from education or experience listed.
  9. Work history is questionable based on education.
  10. Military service dates conflict with employment or education time periods.

Some of these are not lies, just innocent errors. But employers will not take the time to distinguish between the two and most always, will not accept lies or many errors.

Do you have a right to know when a background check is requested by an employer?


Luckily the answer is: "Yes". According to the FCRA, (in effect September 30, 1997), employers who use ‘consumer reports' must provide disclosure and have your consent. In order to be covered by the FCRA, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says that a report must be prepared by an outside company -- a "consumer reporting agency". Or a business that "for monetary fees, dues, or on a cooperative nonprofit basis, regularly engages in ... assembling ... information on consumers for the purpose of furnishing these reports to third parties."

The employer must obtain your written authorization, before the background check is conducted. Your signature on the job application will usually suffice. Most job applications contain verbiage similar to this:

‘I certify that information contained in this application is true and complete. I understand that false information may be grounds for not hiring me, or for immediate termination of employment at any point in the future, if I am hired. I authorize the verification of any or all information listed above, by whatever means deemed necessary by the employer, including but not limited to, a credit check.'

Under federal law, if an employer uses information found in your report, for any "adverse action" such as, denying you the job or rescinding a job offer, the employer must take the following steps;

  • Before the adverse action is taken, the employer must give you a "pre-adverse action disclosure." This includes a copy of the report and an explanation of the consumer's rights under the FCRA.
  • After the adverse action is taken, you must receive an "adverse action notice." This document must contain the following: name, address, and phone number of the employment screening company. A statement that this company did not make the adverse decision, rather that the employer did. A notice that you have the right to dispute the accuracy or completeness, of any of the information in the report.

There are two major loopholes. One, if the employer does not use a third-party screening company but, rather conducts the background check itself, the employer is not subject to the notice and consent provisions of the FCRA. Second, the employer can lie or omit the truth, by telling you that the decision was not based on your background check, but some other reason.

Either way, you would not have the ability to obtain a copy of the background check, used by the employer to find out what negative information it contained.

What is the best way to pass a background check?

Have a clean background and be aware of what information is out there about you, and tell the truth.

Your education is easy to verify. Arrest records are mostly public. Professional screening firms now check for felony and misdemeanor records. In addition to state records, many will check county records. Liability issues have bred wary former employers, who will no doubt provide only limited information about your past employment. Unless you reside in one of the states that provide legal immunity to former employers, who divulge information to prospective employers.

Don't Confess

Candidates' confessions of past actions or admissions of flaws, do not demonstrate honesty. You don't need to provide extra information that is not pertinent or requested.

Don't Make Excusespinnochio

If any true, yet undesirable, information about you should be revealed to you, don't make excuses. Simply accept the fact, own it and move on. If the employer wants to make an issue of this, keep job hunting.

In many businesses, employers do not like to see that candidates have relocated between states, more than once in the last seven years.

As most information databases are still State and County restrictive, candidates with multiple State addresses complicate background checks. As employers now outsource employment screening, the cost of investigating a candidate who has lived in four states in the last seven years, can cost four times as much as a candidate, who has lived in one state for the same time period.

Turnaround time for outsourced background checks can be two to five days. In house investigations can take two weeks. The better the quantity and accuracy of information provided by the candidate, the more expedient the process will be.

Where is your resume?

mailboxEmployers set up blind Post Office boxes, blind email addresses, or a Help-Wanted ad with no company name, to hide their identity. This is done in order to find out if their own employees are looking for work and what is on their resumes. They also do this to find out if their competitor's employees are job hunting.

CAUTION: I would never send my resume to a blind PO box or unknown email address. Recruiting firms have been known to set up blind PO boxes to form target market lists. They contact responders with promises of interviews, for a price.

I know a resume firm that solicits business this way. They contact the responder to critique the resume, and then offer to fix it for a price.

In addition, there are people who place blind PO box ads to gather personal information for illegal purposes.

Even though a company might set up a blind PO box because they do not want their own employees or competitors to know they are hiring, I would not respond.

If you are being considered for an interview, many employers will search online resume postings for your resume, to compare what you have sent them with what you have posted. Make sure your resumes are consistent.

Employers also search online resume postings to see if their own employees are looking for another job.


So you need to check through your resume to find any careless errors. You need to get your hands on various reports that you're entitled to, and correct the records of any mistakes and lack of updates. You need to be able to answer any areas that employers may find suspicious. When you know about background checks, you can get prepared before you go job hunting. Ensure that you don't miss a dream job, due to a database error that's floating around somewhere in cyberspace. If you do this, you'll have little to fear.

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14 of 15 people found the following comment useful:

Unemployable - 2008 Jan 23
Commentator: Debra Lynn Hare (United States - Mississippi)

"In an economy where most people don't know where their next meal is coming from and people are losing their houses and their credit is going bad because of it how can the employers use this as a tool to evaluate your eligibility and often the only thing they consider when hiring and how is america going to work if employers say 50% of the population is unemployable? Foreigners can get jobs before Americans because of these credit report criteria and something should be done about it."

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10 of 12 people found the following comment useful:

Good stuff - How true - 2007 Jul 18
Commentator: Holly P. (United States - California)

"Employees have no idea what's going on behind the scenes. In our HR Department - we scan the web all day for varied versions of posted resumes from our applicants. We catch fatal inconsistencies and rule out hundreds of candidates.


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5 of 6 people found the following comment useful:

Good to know - 2007 Jul 17
Commentator: Ian (United States - Virginia)

"Definitely good to be aware of what employers are checking for. Pretty invasive, I guess they have to cover their butts these days."

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12 of 13 people found the following comment useful:

Excellent Info - 2007 Jul 17
Commentator: Tad Anderson (United States - Pennsylvania)

"In my career I have come across a lot of different types of people. The programmer that blew through my life a few months ago left a trail of destruction in his path that I have been trying to clean up for the past 8 months.

Your Sad Story above is hard to avoid with the people who are making their living coning their way through life.

The rest of the mess our employee made here..

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