Fact Sheet 16:
Employment Background Checks:
A Jobseeker's Guide


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Copyright © 1994 - 2014
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
Posted December 1994
Revised March 2014

The PRC does not perform background checks.

Introduction
1. Why Does an Employer Conduct a Background Check?
2. What Is Included in a Background Check?
3. What Cannot be in a Background Check Report?
4. Who Conducts Background Checks?
5. Fair Credit Reporting Act and Background Checks
6. FCRA Update: Workplace Investigations and Annual File Disclosures
7. Background Checks and Your Credit Report
8. Investigative Consumer Reports - What Will Your Neighbors Say?
9. How to Prepare for a Background Check
10. Resources

Introduction

Whether you are hired or promoted for a job may depend on the information revealed in a background check. Job applicants and existing employees as well as volunteers may be asked to submit to background checks. For some jobs, screening is required by federal or state law. The current emphasis on security and safety has dramatically increased the number of employment background checks conducted. The PRC does not perform background checks.

In short, employers are being cautious. At the same time, applicants and employees fear that employers can dig into the past in ways that have nothing to do with the job.

This guide explains the why and how of background checks. It also tells you what can be covered in a background report, your rights under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, and what you can do to prepare. For more information, go to the References section at the end of this guide. 

1. Why Does an Employer Conduct a Background Check?

Employers check potential and current workers for several reasons. The things an employer wants to know about you can vary with the kinds of jobs you might seek. Here are a few of the reasons for employment screening.

  • Negligent hiring lawsuits are on the rise. If an employee's actions hurt someone, the employer may be liable. The threat of liability gives employers reason to be cautious in checking an applicant's past. A bad decision can wreak havoc on a company's budget and reputation as well as ruin the career of the hiring official. Employers no longer feel secure in relying on their instinct as a basis to hire.

Current events have caused an increase in employment screening.

  • Child abuse and child abductions in the news in recent years have resulted in new laws in almost every state that require criminal background checks for anyone who works with children. The move to protect children through criminal background checks now includes volunteers who serve as coaches for youth sports activities and scout troop leaders.
  • Terrorist acts of September 11, 2001, have resulted in heightened security and identity-verification strategies by employers. Potential job candidates and long-time employees alike are being examined with a new eye following September 11, 2001.
  • Corporate executives, officers, and directors now face a degree of scrutiny in both professional and private life unknown before the Enron debacle and other corporate scandals of 2002.
  • False or inflated information supplied by job applicants is frequently in the news. Numerous studies and news articles, citing varying results, have been published on the topic of resume fraud. While study and survey results may vary, it is clear that human resources professionals are alert to the potential for embellished or outright falsehoods. Such reports make employers wary of accepting anyone's word at face value. For more on resume fraud, see Sam H. and Della L. Dekay, Lying On The Employment Resume: Is it Legal?, presented at the 2008 Association for Business Communication, www.businesscommunication.org, http://businesscommunication.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/13ABC2008.pdf  
  • Federal and state laws require that background checks be conducted for certain jobs. For example, most states require criminal background checks for anyone who works with children, the elderly, or disabled. The federal National Child Protection Act authorizes state officials to access the FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database for some positions. Many state and federal government jobs require a background check, and depending on the kind of job, may require an extensive investigation for a security clearance.
  • The "information age" itself may be a reason for the increase in employment screening -- the availability of computer databases containing millions of records of personal data. As the cost of searching these sources drops, employers are finding it more feasible to conduct background checks.

I don't have anything to hide. Why should I worry?

While some people are not concerned about background investigations, others are uncomfortable with the idea of an investigator poking around in their personal history. In-depth background checks could unearth information that is irrelevant, taken out of context, or just plain wrong. A further concern is that the report might include information that is illegal to use for hiring purposes or which comes from questionable sources.

An April 2012 report prepared by the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC), identifies these and other problems that may be found when background screening companies report on criminal history. The NCLC report may be found at: www.nclc.org/issues/broken-records.html 

Does a criminal record mean I can never get a job?

Not necessarily. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has said that use of criminal history may sometimes violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This can happen, the EEOC says, when employers treat criminal history differently for different applicants or employees.

On April 25, 2012, the EEOC issued extensive guidelines for employers in considering the criminal history of a job applicant or employee. The EEOC cites the most important considerations as:  (1) the nature and gravity of the offense (2) the time that has lapsed since the offense and (3) the nature of the job. To aid in compliance with Title VII, the EEOC guidelines provide employers with examples of best business practices.

The EEOC’s guidelines, Consideration of Arrest and Conviction Records in Employment Decisions Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, can be found at www.eeoc.gov/laws/guidance/arrest_conviction.cfm

2. What Is Included in a Background Check?

Background reports can range from a verification of an applicant's Social Security number to a detailed account of the potential employee's history and acquaintances. Some employers are now searching popular social networking sites such as and Facebook for the profiles of applicants. 

Here are some of the pieces of information that might be included in a background check. Note that many of these sources are public records created by government agencies.

  • Driving records
  • Vehicle registration
  • Credit records
  • Criminal records
  • Social Security no.
  • Education records
  • Court records
  • Workers' compensation
  • Bankruptcy
  • Character references
  • Neighbor interviews
  • Medical records
  • Property ownership
  • Military records
  • State licensing records
  • Drug test records
  • Past employers
  • Personal references
  • Incarceration records
  • Sex offender lists

Information to be included in a background check will almost certainly depend to some extent on the employer and the job involved. For many jobs, a state or federal law requires the employer to conduct a background check. Jobs that involve work with children, the elderly or people with disabilities are examples of jobs that will almost certainly require a criminal background check.

In addition to information gathered from documents or databases, employers may also gather information on job applications or employee questionnaires. Concerns about the highly personal nature of some questions can lead to lawsuits. One such case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. In this case, the Court said personal information required of contract workers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was “reasonable” given the government’s interest in screening employees. To read the Supreme Court’s full decision, go to: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/10pdf/09-530.pdf

    3. What Cannot Be in a Background Check Report?

The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) sets national standards for employment screening. However, the law only applies to background checks performed by an outside company, called a "consumer reporting agency" under the FCRA. The law does not apply in situations where the employer conducts background checks inhouse.

Your state may have stronger laws, such as California's Investigative Consumer Reporting Agencies Act (Civil Code §1786) and the California Consumer Credit Reporting Agency Act (Civil Code §1785). In addition, many state labor codes and state fair employment guidelines limit the content of an employment background check. (For more on the FCRA, see Part 5.)

Under the FCRA, a background check report is called a "consumer report." This is the same "official" name given to your credit report, and the same limits on disclosure apply. The FCRA says the following cannot be reported:

  • Bankruptcies after 10 years.
  • Civil suits, civil judgments, and records of arrest, from date of entry, after seven years.
  • Paid tax liens after seven years.
  • Accounts placed for collection after seven years.
  • Any other negative information (except criminal convictions) after seven years.

However, the above reporting restrictions do not apply to jobs with an annual salary of $75,000 or more a year. (FCRA §605(b)(3).

The most recent change to the FCRA made criminal convictions reportable indefinitely. California still follows the seven-year rule (CA Civil Code 1786.18) as do some other states. To find the limit for reporting criminal convictions in your state, contact your state employment agency or office of consumer affairs. Other laws that should be considered:

Arrest information. Although arrest record information is public record, in California and other states employers cannot seek from any source the arrest record of a potential employee. However, if the arrest resulted in a conviction, or if the applicant is out of jail but pending trial, that information can be used. (California Labor Code §432.7).

In California, an exception exists for the health care industry where any employer who has an interest in hiring a person with access to patients can ask about sex related arrests. And, when an employee may have access to medications, an employer can ask about drug related arrests.

  • Criminal history. In California, criminal histories or "rap sheets" compiled by law enforcement agencies are not public record. Only certain employers such as public utilities, law enforcement, security guard firms, and child care facilities have access to this information. (California Penal Code §§11105, 13300) With the advent of computerized court records and arrest information, however, there are private companies that compile virtual "rap sheets."

Employers need to use caution in checking criminal records. Information offered to the public by web-based information brokers is not always accurate or up to date. This violates both federal and California law when reported as such. Also, in California, an employer may not inquire about a marijuana conviction that is more than two years old.

  • Workers' compensation. In most states including California, when an employee's claim goes through the state system or the Workers' Compensation Appeals Board (WCAB), the case becomes public record. An employer may 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 use medical information or the fact an applicant filed a workers' compensation claim to discriminate against applicants. (42 USC §12101).

In California, employers may access workers' compensation records after making an offer of employment. To gain access, employers must register with the WCAB and confirm that the records are being accessed for legitimate purposes. Although the agency may not reveal medical information and the employer may not rescind an offer due to a workers' compensation claim (California Labor Code 132a), employers sometimes discover that applicants have not revealed previous employers where they had filed claims. In such situations, employers often terminate the new hire because it appears they falsified the application.

  • Bankruptcies. Bankruptcies are public record. However, employers cannot discriminate against applicants because they have filed for bankruptcy. (11 USC §525)

Although these laws should prevent an employer from considering certain information, there is no realistic way for the applicant to determine whether such information will be revealed in a background check. This is particularly true for investigations conducted online where the information obtained from online information brokers might not be verified for accuracy or completeness.

For example, if you were arrested but never convicted, a data search could reveal the arrest, but the investigator who compiled the information might not delve further into the public records to determine that you were acquitted or the charges were dropped. Reputable employment screening companies always verify negative information obtained from data base searches against the actual public records filed at the courthouse.

Can an employment application ask about things that should not be reported?

The FCRA does not prohibit an employer from asking questions in an employment application. See FTC letters to Nadell and Sum:

For example, an employment application might ask if you have "ever" been arrested. The FCRA says a consumer reporting agency cannot report an arrest that from date of entry was more than seven years ago. It does not say the employer cannot ask the question.

How to handle such questions on an employment application is of real concern to many people, especially those concerned with a youthful mistake from the distant past.

To learn about employment laws in your state, search the Internet for “employment inquiries” followed by the name of your state. State and local equal employment opportunity agencies, along with federal EEO field offices, may also be located through the US Equal Opportunity Commission Web site. http://www.eeoc.gov/field/index.cfm.

State employment laws may limit the questions that an employer includes on a job application.  So- called "Ban the Box" laws in a few states and municipalities may prohibit employers from inquiring into criminal history in a job application. These laws can be complex and varied.  For examples, see http://www.littler.com/workplace-privacy-counsel/san-franciscos-board-supervisors-bans-box-and-further-complicates-criminal

The California Labor Code says an employer cannot ask about:

  • Any arrest or detention that did not result in a conviction.
  • Any arrest for which pretrial diversion has been completed.
  • As of January 1, 2014, employers are prohibited from asking job applicants about criminal records that have been expunged, sealed or dismissed.
  • As of July 1, 2014, public sector employers (California state and local agencies, cities and counties) are prohibited from asking about criminal records on employment applications.  Public sector employers must review an applicant's qualifications before inquiring about their conviction history.

Provisions of the Labor Code are reinforced in regulations of the California Department of Fair Housing and Employment. (See: 2 Cal. Codes Regs Sec. 7287.4(d)(1) (Register 95, No. 29: 7-21-95) A Department publication lists questions that are inappropriate for a California job applicant. www.dfeh.ca.gov/res/docs/publications/dfeh-161.pdf

Aren't some of my personal records confidential?

The following types of information may be useful for an employer to make a hiring decision. However, under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, the employer is required to get your permission before obtaining the records. (See PRC Fact Sheet 11, "From Cradle to Grave: Government Records and Your Privacy," www.privacyrights.org/fs/fs11-pub.htm)

  • Education records. Under both federal and California law, transcripts, recommendations, discipline records, and financial information are confidential. A school should not release student records without the authorization of the adult-age student or parent. However, a school may release "directory information," which can include name, address, dates of attendance, degrees earned, and activities, unless the student has given written notice otherwise. (20 USC §1232g, www.ed.gov/offices/OM/fpco/ferpa/index.html)
  • Military service records. Under the federal Privacy Act, service records are confidential and can only be released under limited circumstances. Inquiries not authorized by the subject of the records must be made under the Freedom of Information Act. Even without the applicant's consent, the military may release name, rank, salary, duty assignments, awards, and duty status. (5 USC §§552, 552a) For more on military records, visit the National Archives and Records Administration web site: www.archives.gov/facilities/mo/st_louis/military_personnel_records.html
  • Medical records. In California and many states, medical records are confidential. There are only a few instances when a medical record can be released without your knowledge or authorization. The FCRA also requires your specific permission for the release of medical records. If employers require physical examinations after they make a job offer, they will have access to the results. The Americans with Disabilities Act allows a potential employer to inquire only about your ability to perform specific job functions. (42 USC §12101)

There are other questions such as age, marital status, and certain psychological tests that employers cannot use when interviewing. These issues are beyond the scope of this fact sheet. If you have further questions, contact the resources at the end of this fact sheet. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the fair employment agencies in the states handle these issues.

What can my former employer say about me?

Often a potential employer will contact an applicant's past employers. A former boss can say anything truthful about your performance. However, most employers have a policy to only confirm dates of employment, final salary, and other limited information. California law prohibits employers from intentionally interfering with former employees' attempts to find jobs by giving out false or misleading references. (California Labor Code §1050)

Under California law and the laws of many other states, employees have a right to review their own personnel files and make copies of documents they have signed. If you are a state or federal employee, your personnel file is protected under the California Information Practices Act or the federal Privacy Act of 1974 and can only be disclosed under limited circumstances. (California Civil Code §56.20; California Labor Code §§432, 1198.5; 5 USC §552a)

Jobs such as truck driver positions fall under regulations of the federal Department of Transportation. Employers are required to accurately respond to an inquiry from a prospective employer about whether you took a drug test, refused a drug test, or tested positive in a drug test with the former or current employer. (49 CFR §40.25, 49 CFR §382.413. www.fmcsa.dot.gov/rulesregs/fmcsrhome.htm

4. Who Conducts Background Checks?

There are many companies that specialize in employment screening. It is outside the purpose of this fact sheet to identify background checking companies by name. The most important thing to keep in mind is that companies conducting background checks fall into several broad categories. This can range from individuals commonly known as "private investigators," to companies that do nothing but employment screening, and to online data brokers. The National Association of Professional Background Screeners provides a directory of its members on its Web site, www.napbs.com.

Corporations that employ large numbers of people may have an established relationship with a third-party background checking company or may even use an affiliated company for their employment screening. Other background checking companies may work on a less formal basis with employers. Some screening companies operate in specific areas of the country while others, including some private investigators, conduct background screening nationwide.

With the information age upon us, it is easy for employers to gather background information themselves. Much of it is computerized, allowing employers to log on to public records and commercial databases directly through dial-up networks or via the Internet. Finding one of these online companies is as easy as using an Internet search engine to find web sites that specialize in "background checks."

Employers should beware of companies advertising on the Internet that they can "find everything about anyone." They are not necessarily going to be in strict compliance with federal and state laws, especially the provisions that require accuracy of background check reports. Employers should also understand that online data brokers may be subject to the FCRA, triggering obligations on the part of the company as well as the employer.

In June, 2012 the FTC announced a settlement in a case charging online data broker Spokeo with acting as a consumer reporting agency. For full details of the case see the FTC’s website at www.ftc.gov/opa/2012/06/spokeo.shtm

5. Fair Credit Reporting Act and Background Checks

The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (15 USC §1681 et seq.) does not require employers to conduct employment background checks. But the law sets a national standard that employers must follow in employment screening. State laws may give an employee more rights than the FCRA.

Do I have a right to know when a background check is requested?

Yes. Amendments to the FCRA, in effect September 30, 1997, increase the disclosure and consent requirements of employers who use "consumer reports." 

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 business that "for monetary fees, dues, or on a cooperative nonprofit basis, regularly engages in ... assembling ... information on consumers for the purpose of furnishing consumer reports to third parties." (FCRA §603f)

Under the FCRA, the employer must obtain the applicant's written authorization before the background check is conducted. The authorization must be on a document separate from all other documents such as an employment application. In California, at the time an employer obtains permission for a background check, the applicant or employee should also be told that he or she may request a copy of the report. The FCRA, in contrast, says the subject is entitled to a copy of the report if a pre-adverse notice is given.

Under federal law, if the employer uses information from the consumer report for an "adverse action" - that is, denying the job applicant, terminating the employee, rescinding a job offer, or denying a promotion - it must take the following steps, which are explained further in the Federal Trade Commission's web site, www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/business/credit/bus08.shtm

  • Before the adverse action is taken, the employer must give the applicant a "pre-adverse action disclosure." This includes a copy of the report and an explanation of the consumer's rights under the FCRA.
    A summary of consumer rights under the FCRA can be found at:
    www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/credit/cre35.pdf

  • After the adverse action is taken, the individual must be given an "adverse action notice." This document must contain the 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, and a notice that the individual has the right to dispute the accuracy or completeness of any of the information in the report.

Modified disclosure and adverse action procedures under the FCRA (§604(b)(3)(B)) apply to positions subject to U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations such as truck drivers. The DOT has independent authority to set qualifications for workers in transportation industries.  (49 USC §31502)

Effective January 1, 2013, employers must provide a slightly revised notice in the case of a pre-adverse and adverse action notice. This change reflects revisions to consumer rights notices made by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), www.cfpb.gov, which has primary authority for enforcing the FCRA. Revised notices, among other things, must advise consumers that CFPB is the proper agency for contact. Revised notices must also be given when the employer seeks a more extensive investigative consumer report.  http://www.littler.com/publication-press/publication/employers-must-update-fcra-notices-their-background-check-programs-jan.

There is an error in my background check report. They have me mixed up with another person with a similar name and a criminal record. What should I do?

First, talk to the employer. Explain the report’s errors, and tell the employer you intend to file a dispute with the employment screening company. Although the FCRA does not require the employer to hold the job for you, a sympathetic employer may be willing to give you a chance to correct any errors.

Next, file a dispute with the employment screening company that made the error. You may first call the company and tell them about the error. Then follow-up with a written dispute letter pointing out the errors in the report. Send your letter certified mail, return receipt requested.

 Along with your letter you may submit information that verifies your side of the story. For example, you may have a common name. The background check report may show a criminal record for someone with your first and last name but with a different middle initial. 

The process for disputing errors in an employment report is the same as the process for disputing errors in your credit report. For more about filing disputes, along with a sample dispute letter, see the following FTC publication: How to Dispute Credit Report Errors at http://ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/credit/cre21.shtm

What happens after I file a dispute with the employment screening company?

After you file your dispute, the screening company has 30 days to investigate. If, during that 30 day period, you file additional information, the investigation may be extended by another 15 days. So, 45 days is the maximum time allowed for considering your dispute.

If information in your background screening report cannot be verified, it must be deleted. You must receive written notice of the results of the investigation not later than five business days after the investigation is completed. You can ask the screening company to send the revised report to anyone who has received an employment report about you within the last two years. You also have the right to receive another free copy of your report within 60 days.

Can a background check report include a case that was expunged?

According to the FTC, it should not. In August, 2012, the agency filed a lawsuit against one background screening company for, among other things, reporting criminal records that had been expunged. In addition, the FTC charged the company with failing to follow other FCRA provisions, including failure to provide consumers with a copy of their background check report.

For more on the FTC’s case charging HireRight with violations of the FCRA, go to:http://ftc.gov/opa/2012/08/hireright.shtm.

For more information about an employer’s obligations under the FCRA, see the FTC publication: Using Consumer Reports: What Employers Need to Know: http://business.ftc.gov/documents/bus08-using-consumer-reports-what-employers-need-know and Employment Background Checks and Credit Reports: www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/credit/cre36.shtm

Does the FCRA require that I receive notice and give authorization at any time a background check is obtained?

According to FTC staff, the FCRA allows a "blanket" authorization. This means a one-time notice and authorization is sufficent to allow the employer to obtain reports at any time during employment. See, e.g. www.ftc.gov/os/statutes/fcra/james.shtm 

The requirement to get authorization may, however, be different under state law. In California, for example, notice and authorization is required "at any time before a report is procured." (California Civil Code Sec. 1786.16)

Does the FCRA fall short?

The federal law has two significant loopholes. First, if the employer does not use a third-party screening company but, rather conducts the background check itself, it is not subject to the notice and consent provisions of the FCRA. Second, the employer might tell the rejected applicant that its adverse decision was not based on the contents of the background investigation, but, rather that the job pool was so exceptional that it made its hiring decision based on the fact that there were individuals more qualified than the applicant.

In both of these situations, the applicant would not have the ability to obtain a copy of the background check to find out what negative information it contained. We have learned of situations where the individual remained unemployed for years, not knowing that wrongful criminal records which resulted from identity theft were the reason for the individual's failure to find employment. (Read "Identity Theft: The Growing Problem of Wrongful Criminal Records," www.privacyrights.org/ar/wcr.htm.)

Recent amendments to California's "investigative consumer reporting" law have closed those loopholes. California law now requires that individuals who are subject to employment screening are able to obtain a copy of the background check whether or not an adverse action has been taken. And applicants have the same rights to notice and consent whether the employer hires an outside company to conduct the investigation or does the background check itself. (California Civil Code §1786). And now in California when an individual requests a copy of their report from the consumer reporting agency, the agency must explain their rights in a document written in both English and Spanish.

Where do I go to complain about an employer or a background screening company that does not follow the FCRA?

Complaints should be filed with the Federal Trade Commission, www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov/ Your state may also have a law that applies to employment background checks. In that case, file a complaint with your state Attorney General. Contact for state Attorneys General can be found through the website for the National Association of Attoneys General. www.naag.org/ 

In California, complaints should be submitted to the Attorney General's Public Inquiry Unit, (916) 322-3360 or Toll Free in California (800) 952-5225. Or visit the AG's website for contacts: http://oag.ca.gov/contact

The FCRA includes a private right of action, that is consumers themselves may sue for violations. Attorneys who specialize in employment law may be located through the National Employment Lawyers' Association, www.nela.org/NELA/. State and county bar associations are another resource for referrals.

For more on employment background checks and your rights under the FCRA, see the Federal Trade Commission publication, Employment Background Checks and Credit Reports, www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/credit/cre36.shtm.

6. FCRA Update: Workplace Investigations and Annual File Disclosures

Amendments to the FCRA, known as the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003 or FACTA, set a standard for what FACTA calls "employee misconduct investigations." In addition, FACTA says job applicants and employees who have undergone an employment background screening covered by the FCRA may receive a free annual file disclosure from the company that performed the background check.

Workplace Investigations

What is an "employee misconduct investigation"?

This is an investigation conducted by a third-party your employer may hire if the employer suspects you of:

  • Misconduct relating to your employment.
  • A violation of federal, state or local laws or regulations.
  • A violation of any preexisting written policies of the employer.
  • Noncompliance with the rules of a self-regulatory organization, that, for example, oversees the securities and commodity futures industry.

Why was this change made to the FCRA?

This section was adopted to make it clear that employers do not have to get permission to conduct a misconduct investigation. Prior to this, FTC staff issued an opinion letter, the so-called "Vail Letter," that said the FCRA applies even when an employee is suspected of misconduct and the employer hires an outside investigator. (Note: California law already includes an exception for workplace misconduct investigations. www.privacyrights.org/fs/fs16a-califbck.htm)

If my employer suspects me of misconduct, what does this mean for me?

It means your employer does not have to give you notice and get your permission to conduct a misconduct investigation. Like other inquiries covered by the FCRA, this only applies if the employer hires an outside party to conduct the investigation.

It also means you will not receive a notice of your rights as others who are subject to a standard employment background check normally would. If, at the end of the investigation, the employer decides to take some action against you, you receive the "adverse action" notice only after the action has been taken.

You will receive only a "summary" of the investigation report, but not the more detailed report that may include sources.

Who will see the investigation report?

The report may be communicated to:

  • The employer or its agent.
  • Any federal or state officer, agency or department or any officer, agency or department of a unit of general local government.
  • Any self-regulatory organization with regulatory authority over the activities of the employer or the employee.
  • Others, as is otherwise required by law; or
  • A government agency, in accordance with an existing FCRA section that allows a consumer reporting agency to disclose personal identifying information to a government agency.

Can I dispute the findings?

Not under the FCRA dispute procedure. That is because this new section on workplace misconduct investigations was effected by removing this type of investigation from the definition of "consumer report." Thus, the usual protections that apply to a "consumer report" conducted for employment purposes do not apply to workplace misconduct investigations. If you find yourself in this position, you will probably want to seek the advice of an employment law attorney.

Annual File Disclosure

Another feature of the FCRA allows consumers to get a free copy of their credit report once every twelve months. To learn more about free annual credit reports, see: www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/freereports/index.shtml

FACTA also requires a free annual file disclosure for consumer reports prepared by "nationwide specialty consumer reporting agencies." This refers to companies that compile, maintain files, and issue reports on consumers that relate to:

  • Medical records or payments.
  • Residential or tenant history.
  • Check writing history.
  • Employment history.
  • Insurance claims.

For job applicants and employees, this means, you may receive a free copy of your "file" maintained by a "nationwide specialty consumer reporting agency" that supplies employers with background checks. Before, you could request a copy of your "file" but would have to pay for it.

Now, companies that provide employment background check reports have to, as a minimum, set up a toll-free number that gives you instructions on how to get the information in your "file." Companies may but are not required to also provide access to the free "file" disclosure through a web site address.

Your "file" is not the same as your "report." The "report" is the document the background screening company gives to your 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" notice. Your "file" is defined in the FCRA as ".all of the information [about you] recorded and retained by a consumer reporting agency regardless of how the information is stored." (FCRA §603(g)) 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, it is a good idea to ask the employer for the name of the company that will do the check.

7. Background Checks and Your Credit Report

An employment background check often includes a copy of your credit report. The three major credit reporting agencies (Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax) provide a modified version of the credit report called an "employment report." An "employment report" includes information about your credit-payment history and other credit habits from which current or potential employers might draw conclusions about you.

An employment report provides everything a standard credit report would provide. However it doesn't include your credit score or date of birth. Nor does it place an "inquiry" on your credit file that may be seen by a company looking to issue you credit. Having too many credit inquiries tends to lower your credit score.

My job doesn't require handling money. Why does the employer do a credit check?

Often employers use your credit history to gauge your level of responsibility. Whether a valid assumption or not, some employers believe if you are not reliable in paying your bills, then you will not be a reliable employee. Unfortunately, a bad credit report can work against you in your search for employment. For more on how a credit record can affect your job search, see the FTC's fact sheet on this topic, www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/alerts/ngcrdtalrt.htm

In addition to your payment history, a credit report typically includes information about your former addresses and previous employers. Employers can use this as one way to verify the accuracy of information you provide on an application or resume.

My credit rating went down when I lost my job. Now I can’t get a job because of poor credit. Is this fair?

No. Often a poor credit rating results from circumstances that are beyond your control. The loss of a job or high medical bills often leads to late payments, even bankruptcy. Still a bank or other financial institution may reason that a solid financial history is a qualifying factor for an employee who has control over substantial sums of money.

However, the same argument cannot be made when a credit check serves only as a kind of character screening. Some states have now recognized the unfairness in this by adopting laws that require a direct relationship to the job before a credit check is made.

Do any state laws limit the use of credit reports for employment screening purposes?

Several states have passed laws limiting credit reports for employment decisions with provisions that require a nexus to actual job duties. Those states are: Colorado, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.  Similar laws have been introduced in other states.

A California employer cannot review your credit report unless the job falls into one of numerous exceptions. Credit checks are allowed for, among other things, jobs with the state Department of Justice, management positons, law enforcement jobs, and jobs that entail access to money, financial accounts, or personal information. For full details on Assembly Bill 22 regarding credit checks and employment reports in California, see http://leginfo.ca.gov/pub/11-12/bill/asm/ab_0001-0050/ab_22_bill_20110920_enrolled.html.

For more on employment background checks in California, see PRC Fact Sheet 16a, www.privacyrights.org/fs/fs16a-califbck.htm.

For summaries of laws in other states that limit the use of credit reports for employment screening purposes, see http://www.esrcheck.com/States-with-Laws-Regulating-Credit-Reports-for-Employment.php.

Can my employer continue to check my credit after I’ve been hired?

Yes. The FCRA allows employment checks not only for hiring purposes but for other employment purposes such as promotion, retention, or transfer. Credit checks for the purposes of retaining you as an employee allows the employer to check you credit periodically. Once you have given your permission, you generally need not be asked again.

Employers may run periodic checks, for example, as a way to identify individuals who have a high debt to salary ratio. To an employer, an employee who is overextended financially may be more prone to stealing from the company.

I never use credit. Can an employer hold that against me?

Yes. The employer might be looking for someone who has an established record of paying bills on time. The FCRA says only that certain things like negative information more than seven years old cannot be considered. The absence of a credit history can also be considered. But if this bit of information means you don't get the job, the employer has to give you an adverse notice decision. For more on an employer's responsibility under the FCRA, see www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/alerts/alt053.shtm

8. Investigative Consumer Reports: What Will Your Neighbors Say?

Can an employer ask my friends and neighbors about me?

Yes. Under the FCRA, a background check that includes interviews with "neighbors, friends, or associates" about your "character, general reputation, personal characteristics, or mode of living" is called an "investigative consumer report." (The term "investigative consumer report" has a different meaning under California Law. See www.leginfo.ca.gov, Civil Code §1786.)

When information about you is gathered from interviews, the FCRA requires a separate disclosure. You are also entitled to know the "nature and scope" of an investigative consumer report, but you have to ask. For more on how the FTC staff interprets the term "investigative consumer report" and other keys topics under the FCRA, visit the FTC web site www.ftc.gov/os/statutes/fcra/index.htm

9. How to Prepare for a Background Check

Note: If you are concerned about whether a previous arrest, probation or conviction will show up on a background check, click here

When you know you are going to be on the job market, take the following steps to reduce the chances that you and/or the potential employer will be "surprised" by information found in the background check process:

  • Order a copy of your credit report. If there is something you do not recognize or that you disagree with, dispute the information with the creditor and/or credit bureau before you have to explain it to the interviewer. Another individual's name may appear on your credit report. This happens when someone mistakenly writes down the wrong Social Security number on a credit application causing that name to appear on your file. Or you might be a victim of identity theft. (See PRC Fact Sheet 6 on your credit reporting rights, www.privacyrights.org/fs/fs6-crdt.htm, and Fact Sheet 17a on identity theft, www.privacyrights.org/fs/fs17a.htm.)
  • Check court records. If you have an arrest record or have been involved in court cases, go to the county where this took place and inspect the files. Make sure the information is correct and up to date.

    Reporting agencies often report felony convictions when the consumer truly believes the crime was reduced to a misdemeanor, or that it was reported as a misdemeanor conviction when the consumer thought the charge was reduced to an infraction. Court records are not always updated correctly. For example, a signature that was needed to reduce the charges might not have been obtained or recorded by the court. Don't rely on what someone else may have told you. If you think the conviction was expunged or dismissed, get a certified copy of your report from the court. For an explanation of expungement, visit www.epic.org/privacy/expungement.

    It is always a good idea to keep certified copies of any papers filed in court, especially the judge’s order or other document that disposes of the case. If you later learn the court record is inaccurate but do not have a certified copy, first contact the clerk of court where the matter was heard. If you cannot correct the problem at this level, it may be necessary to petition the court yourself or hire an attorney to act on your behalf.
  • Check DMV records. Request a copy of your driving record from the Department of Motor Vehicles, especially if you are applying for a job that involves driving.

    Many employers ask on their application if you were ever convicted of a crime. Or they might word the question to ask whether you have ever been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor. Typically, the application says you do not have to divulge a case that was expunged or dismissed, or that was a minor traffic violation.

    Don't be confused. A DUI (driving under the influence) or DWI (driving while intoxicated) conviction is not considered a minor traffic infraction. Applicants with a DUI or DWI who have not checked "yes" on a job application may be denied employment for falsifying the form -- even when the incident occurred only once or happened many years before. The employer perceives this as dishonesty, even though the applicant might only have been confused by the question.
  • Do your own background check. If you want to see what an employer's background check might uncover, hire a company that specializes in such reports to conduct one for you. That way, you can discover if the data bases of information vendors contain erroneous or misleading information. (Consult the Yellow Pages under "Investigators.") Or, you can use one of the many online search services to find out what an employer would learn if conducting a background check in this way.
  • Ask to see a copy of your personnel file from your old job. Even if you do not work there anymore, state law might enable you to see your file. Under California law, you can access your file until at least a year from the last date of employment. And you are allowed to make copies of documents in your file that have your signature on them. (California Labor Code §432.) You may also want to ask if your former employer has a policy about the release of personnel records. Many companies limit the amount of information they disclose.
  • Read the fine print carefully. When you sign a job application, you will be asked to sign a consent form if a background check is conducted. Read this statement carefully and ask questions if the authorization statement is not clear. Unfortunately, jobseekers are in an awkward position, since refusing to authorize a background check may jeopardize the chances of getting the job.
Note: Notice of a background check has to be on a separate form. The only other information this form can include is your authorization and information that identifies you. Neither the notice of a background check nor any other form should ask questions like "race," "sex," "full date of birth," or "maiden name." Such questions violate the federal Equal Employment Opportunity laws. And, you should not be asked to sign any document that waives your right to sue a screening company or the employer for violations of the law.
  • Tell neighbors and work colleagues, past and present, that they might be asked to provide information about you. This helps avoid suspicion and alerts you to possible problems. In addition, their prior knowledge gives them permission to disclose information to the investigator. Forewarning others speeds up the process and helps you get the job faster.

  • Clean up your "digital dirt." Conduct a search on your name -- in quotation marks -- in the major search engines such as Google and Yahoo. If you find unflattering references, contact the Web site to learn if and how you can remove them. You can monitor the web for new mentions of your name by setting up a Google Alert at http://www.google.com/alerts. Google Alert will send you email updates of the latest Google results mentioning your name.

    If you have created profiles in popular social networking sites such as Facebook, review, and if necessary, edit what you have posted to make sure that an employer would not be offended.

    Do not underestimate the power of your online reputation to sway potential employers.  A report commissioned by Microsoft, Inc., issued in January 2010, found that only 15% of consumers surveyed thought what they posted online had any effect on their job prospects.  In sharp contrast, the report found that 75% of the recruiters surveyed reported formal policies that required online research of applications. To read the full Microsoft report, go to: www.microsoft.com/en-us/news/features/2010/jan10/01-26dataprivacyday.aspx 

Some employers are turning to third-party screening companies such as Social Intelligence to monitor and report on a potential employee’s social networking activity. Understand that if employers themselves monitor your Internet activity, you do not have rights under the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

The Federal Trade Commission investigated Social Intelligence. In a letter dated May 9, 2011 the agency announced that the investigation was closed but made it clear that such companies are subject to the FCRA and that consumers have the same rights as with more traditional background screening conducted by third-party screeners.

To read the FTC’s letter closing the investigation into Social Intelligence, See:  http://privacyblog.littler.com/uploads/file/FederalTradeCommissionLetterReSocialIntelligenceCorporation.pdf

For further discussion see: Workplace Privacy Counsel blog, “Social Checks” Come of Age: What Does it Means for Employers?”, posted July 11, 2011. http://privacyblog.littler.com/2011/07/articles/background-checks/social-checks-come-of-age-what-does-it-mean-for-employers/#more

Do you blog? Re-read your entries from the perspective of a potential employer. Remove or edit postings that could harm your jobseeking efforts. But don't necessarily remove Web content that shines a light on your positive achievements. A personal Web site or blog that highlights your good deeds could benefit you.

  • Request previous background check reports. If you have been the subject of a background check covered by the FCRA, you may be entitled to receive a copy of your "file" from the employment screening company. If you do not know the name of the screening company, ask the employer who requested the check. For more on your right to get a free employment report, see PRC Fact Sheet 6b. www.privacyrights.org/fs/fs6b-SpecReports.htm

10. Resources

Laws on Background Checks

Laws on Workplace Discrimination

  • Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC),
    www.eeoc.gov
    The EEOC was established by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It enforces the following laws:
  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. 42 USC §2000e, www.eeoc.gov/laws/statutes/titlevii.cfm
  • Equal Pay Act of 1963, which protects men and women who perform substantially equal work in the same establishment from sex-based wage discrimination. 29 USC §206(d), www.eeoc.gov/policy/epa.html.
  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), which protects individuals who are 40 years of age or older. 29 USC §621, www.eeoc.gov/policy/adea.html.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), which prohibits employment discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities in the private sector, and in state and local governments. 42 USC §12101, www.eeoc.gov/policy/ada.html.

Contacting Government Agencies

  • U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
    1801 L Street, N.W.
    Washington, D.C. 20507
    Phone: (202) 663-4900
    TTY: (202) 663-4494
    Web: www.eeoc.gov
  • EEOC Field Offices
    To be automatically connected with the nearest EEOC field office, call:
    Phone: (800) 669-4000
    TTY: (800) 669-6820
  • Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
    Consumer Response Center, CRC-240
    Washington, D.C. 20580
    Phone: (877) FTC-HELP (877-382-4357)
    TTY: (866) 653-4261
    Web: www.ftc.gov

FTC Publications and Informational Video

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

California Department of Fair Employment and Housing
The Department of Fair Employment and Housing does not currently accept complaints through the Internet or by mail. For information on how to file an employment-related complaint, call one of the numbers below.

(800) 884-1684 (Within California)
(916) 227-0551 (Outside California)
Web site: www.dfeh.ca.gov

Fair Employment Agencies in the 50 States
The following web sites list fair employment agencies in the 50 states:
http://www.thelaw.com/guide/employment/list-of-state-fair-employment-practices-agencies/

Articles of Interest

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse has revised and updated this guide with funding assistance from the Rose Foundation Consumer Privacy Rights Fund.
We acknowledge the assistance of Barry Nadell, Nadell Investigations, in developing this guide,
www.nadellinvestigations.com

Copyright © Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. This copyrighted document may be copied and distributed for nonprofit, educational purposes only. For distribution, see our copyright and reprint guidelines. The text of this document may not be altered without express authorization of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.


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