Discover the Different Types of Background Checks and How to Pass Them

Last updated on October 14, 2021

When you apply for a new job, an employer may require you to undertake background checks before hiring. These are used to determine the suitability of a candidate for a position. In some cases, they provide your employer with important information about your past.

The types of background checks you’ll need to pass will depend on the job you’re applying for. For example, individuals applying for a role working with children will always have to undertake a sexual registry offender trace but may not have to pass a credit background check as that information is less relevant.

Conversely, if you’re applying for a role in a finance company, a credit trace would prove that you understood fiscal responsibility, which is relevant to that position.

Below, we’ll cover the major types of background checks, why employers perform them, and what kind of roles require each type. We’ll provide information to help you understand whether you can pass all types of background checks and best practices.

Prior Employment Verification Check

A prior employment verification check is used to determine:

  • The type of work experience you have that is relevant to the position you’re applying for
  • Whether you have a stable working history (and if not, why not?)
  • Whether the information you’ve provided to the prospective employer is accurate

This is different from a reference check (see below), which simply involves speaking with former employers about your character. Prior employment verification includes:

  • Examining the dates you started and finished a job
  • Checking for patterns in your work history and reasons for leaving positions

These types of background checks are most often performed by an external agency when you’re applying for high-salary positions that require substantial experience. This is because unscrupulous prospective hires sometimes provide false or exaggerated information about their experience.

For example, someone with minor supervision experience might claim to have been a manager at their previous company for a lengthy period in an application for a senior management position elsewhere.

How to Pass a Prior Employment Verification Check

The most important thing is to ensure that all the information on your resume is fully accurate. You can demonstrate what your experience has taught you in an interview, but providing false information is a major red flag for prospective employers. It casts doubts on your integrity and makes it very unlikely you’ll be hired.

You should also be fully compliant with these types of background checks. If there are any question marks in your employment history, explain them upfront so your prospective employer has context. However, always say that you’re happy to submit to the trace. If you look like you’re trying to hide something, it raises questions and reduces your chances of being hired.

Reference Check

These types of background checks involve your prospective employer contacting past employers to obtain a character reference. It could be performed over the phone or by email and may cover things like:

  • Your attitude to the job
  • Your relationships with fellow employees
  • Your punctuality and attendance record
  • Your ability level

These background checks are performed at all levels; reference checks are perhaps the most common type of trace other than criminal history checks. Some employers even ask for references from first-time job applicants, in which case you might appoint a teacher from your old school to provide a character reference.

A common misconception is that a previous employer is not allowed to give a negative reference or that the only negative information they’re allowed to provide is that they wouldn’t hire you again. This is not true. While many companies have policies on giving negative references to prevent disputes between managers and former employees and potential legal action, the law only states that a previous employer must be fair, accurate, and non-discriminatory when giving a reference.

This gives some leeway to previous employers. Unfortunately, it is exploited by former or current managers with an ax to grind in some cases. While legal action in the form of a defamation lawsuit is an option when this happens, many people don’t have the resources to seek damages.

How to Pass a Reference Check

There are several steps you can take to minimize the risk of failing a reference check:

  • Maintain a professional relationship with your current management. Even if you dislike your current employer, remaining professional is the best way to ensure they won’t hold anything against you and give an unfair reference. If you feel you’re being treated unfairly, raise it in a tribunal before leaving your current workplace.
  • Choose a favorable referee. If you suspect your direct superior will give you an unfair reference, ask another senior staff member to provide a reference for you. You may have to explain the situation delicately, but this is often a good option.
  • Make sure you meet the standards for a positive reference. Poor punctuality or performance may well be mentioned by your referee and can’t be disputed if they’re true. Make sure your record will speak well to your new employer — it increases your chances of getting out of your current position.

If you only have one possible referee, you may have to explain to your prospective employer why you have a bad relationship with that referee before they perform the check. This situation isn’t ideal, but it’s always best to be up-front.

Education Verification Check

Information about your education history is required when applying for most positions, but education verification checks aren’t always performed to validate this information. For example, if you have a college degree and subsequently apply for a retail position, you’ll probably be asked to state your most recent education, but the employer likely will not contact your college to verify this.

However, these types of background checks will be used for any role where a certain level of education is necessary to perform the job to a high standard. For example:

  • A position in journalism will likely ask for a degree in journalism or English, and a check will be conducted to ensure that you’re not lying (an especially important requirement for journalists)
  • A mechanical engineering role will always check to make sure you have the required education
  • Some roles require you have to have completed a college education (regardless of degree) as a general indicator of aptitude.

Some positions are classified as “professionally exempt” from general hiring practices under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) because an employee must have specialist education to perform that role. This is to prevent preferential treatment from being given to an unqualified individual who may, for example, have a personal relationship with the employer when it would be irresponsible to allow that individual to occupy that role.

Lying about having specialist education for these roles can lead to serious consequences for the employer and the employee, which is why it’s important to perform an education verification check in high-responsibility technical positions.

How to Pass an Education Verification Check

You must be honest about your education history. Roles that don’t require an education verification check will typically select candidates based on experience and attitude rather than educational background. Roles that do require this trace have a good reason to ask for it — you could cause harm to the company or even further damage by taking on a position you’re not qualified for.

You should also make it clear if you attended college but didn’t complete your degree. This type of exaggeration is frowned on by employers.

Criminal History Check

These are among the most common and important types of background checks. The way these traces are performed depends on state law, but they’re generally required for any position where a criminal history could pose a threat to:

  • Fellow employees
  • The integrity of the environment (e.g., positions at airports)
  • Minors — these checks are always required for positions that work closely with children
  • Sensitive information (e.g., financial or healthcare positions)

Depending on state law and the company, a variety of databases may be searched. These can include:

How to Pass a Criminal History Check

It’s important to remember that if you have a criminal record, this doesn’t automatically disqualify you from many positions (depending on the nature of the crime). For this reason, you should never attempt to conceal a conviction. It will appear on a search and lead to serious questions about your integrity.

You can also provide evidence and references from rehabilitation programs you may have undertaken. Employers will be more sympathetic if you can show a strong track record of reformation.

Be clear with prospective employers from the start about the nature of any criminal record. A DUI conviction from when you were a teenager won’t destroy your chances of getting most jobs, whereas attempting to conceal information will.

Sexual Offender Registry Check

Sexual offense traces are one of the most serious types of background checks, and advanced checks will always be performed if you’re applying for a role that involves working with minors or vulnerable people. These offenses come up in many standard criminal background checks, but it’s often important for an employer to know the exact nature of an offense.

Companies that don’t run these checks can face legal action over negligent hiring practices, which means that they’re performed by most employers today.

How to Pass a Sexual Offender Registry Check

If you have a past conviction as a sexual offender, you should be mindful of the responsibilities of the position you’re applying for. If it involves close contact with minors or vulnerable people, it’s unlikely that you’ll be eligible for the position.

Never attempt to conceal this information from prospective employers, regardless of what the position is. Most companies perform these checks, and it forms an important part of keeping other employees and clients safe. You should be prepared to explain the context of the conviction and provide evidence of rehabilitation.

Drug Screening Check

Unlike most types of background checks, drug screening applies to current employees as well as prospective hires. These checks are sometimes simply part of a company’s policy regardless of what the company does but are vital safety precautions for individuals in positions that involve driving or operating machinery.

These tests can only be performed with consent and usually with some notice. However, refusal to complete a drug screening check could be considered suspicious by an employer.

Not all drug screening tests are for the same substances — it depends on the company and the reason for testing. However, in a standard SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) test, these types of background checks test for:

  • Amphetamines
  • THC
  • Cocaine
  • Opioids
  • Phencyclidine
  • Alcohol (in some cases)

SAMHSA regulations are always used for federal positions and are also used by many private employers. However, private employers may test for a far wider range of substances, including:

  • Barbiturates
  • Benzodiazepines (including Xanax and Valium)
  • Hallucinogens

How to Pass a Drug Screening Check

Drug screening checks are complicated and should be treated seriously. One reason for this is that the key chemicals in SAMHSA testing are often found in recreational products (alcohol, marijuana in some states) and so may not indicate a drug offense.

These substances remain in the body for many hours after use and so may simply be leftover from the night before and have negligible effects. However, they can impact performance above a certain level, which is a concern for many employers.

For this reason, it’s best to avoid taking alcohol or products containing THC on work nights or the day before an interview, as it may include a drug screening check.

Another complication is that some legal medical products contain these substances (e.g. medical marijuana and opioids for pain relief). You should be clear with a prospective employer that you are permitted by your doctor to use these substances and obtain a reference from your primary healthcare provider.

An employer can’t automatically refuse you a job because of legal medical opioid use as long as there is a way for you to do the job safely and effectively.

There are no protections for users of medical marijuana. However, an employer will be more sympathetic if you’re clear about your reasons for needing this medication from the start.

Driving Record Check

These types of background checks are typically required for jobs that will involve operating a vehicle, whether it’s a taxi or an HGV. This ensures that you have a good track record of driving safely and that you don’t pose a risk when on the road.

A driving record check will typically entail:

  • Making sure you have a valid driving license
  • Checking for DUIs in the public record
  • Searching for traffic accidents you may have been involved in and the reasons behind these
  • Points on your record (e.g., for speeding)

Companies are often liable for the behavior and performance of their drivers when on the road, which is why these traces are so common.

It’s not always limited to companies that require you to operate a vehicle, either. For example, if you have an hour-long commute to work every day, your employer may want to ensure you’re not liable to be pulled over for speeding on that trip. Some employers trace your driving record simply as an extension of a criminal record check.

How to Pass a Driving Record Check

Be ready to provide full information about any blemishes on your driving record. In the case of accidents, be ready to show (where appropriate) any evidence that you weren’t at fault for the accident. Never try to conceal accidents or offenses that may show up on your record, and always be willing to submit to a driving record check.

An accident or an old speeding ticket isn’t the end of the world for your career prospects, even as a driver. It’s worth noting that professional drivers are far more at risk of being involved in accidents due to the increased time they spend on the road, so a previous accident won’t wreck your chances. Instead, they’re looking for major offenses.

Professional License & Certificate Confirmation Check

From degree certificates to trade licenses, employers will often request these types of background checks to ascertain whether you have the required qualifications for a position. This type of trace is usually quite straightforward, as the employee should always have the necessary documentation to prove their licensing or certification.

How to Pass a Professional License & Certificate Confirmation Check

The best advice is to keep your documents organized. Employers won’t always ask for degree certificates to prove your credentials — but they might, so it’s worth having it to hand.

Create a folder containing all your relevant licensing and certification. Also, never state that you have certification for a qualification you’re still working towards because it’s not the same thing as having obtained that qualification.

Social Security Number Trace

Your social security number is used to ascertain that you are who you say you are. This is useful information for employers, and social security number traces are a common part of the hiring process.

These types of background checks are often used by employers who consider themselves at risk of hiring undocumented migrants and facing penalties as a result. This applies to industries such as:

  • Construction
  • Kitchens & catering
  • Repair services (e.g., roofing)
  • Cleaning services

How to Pass a Social Security Number Trace

All U.S. citizens have a social security number, and all legal U.S. residents who apply for this number can receive one. It’s best to apply for a social security number because it makes it far easier to get a job without any questions being asked.

Credit Background Check

Credit checks can be used to examine a prospective employee’s financial history. This is considered relevant in industries like finance, where personal fiscal responsibility can be a good sign for the candidate’s competence in a role that handles money.

These types of background checks can only be performed with the individual’s consent and have even been made illegal as part of the hiring process in some places, including New York City and Chicago.

How to Pass a Credit Background Check

In most cases, you can refuse to agree to a credit background check. Unless it includes a history of credit fraud or criminal practices (which would come up in a criminal background check), this information is private and therefore doesn’t need to be shared with employers.

If you’re asked for this information, you should ask the prospective employer why they consider it necessary.

Social Media and Internet Check

It’s becoming more common for employers to perform these types of background checks, but they are less formal than most other methods. A prospective or current employee is never obliged to disclose their social media or internet presence, but an employer may search for it regardless.

The type of information sought after may include:

  • Evidence of regular irresponsible behavior (e.g., as documented on Facebook)
  • A record of discriminatory, inflammatory, or otherwise offensive statements (e.g., on Twitter)
  • A personal business that the employer does not wish their company to be associated with (e.g., creating adult content)
  • False or slanderous statements about the company (usually for current employees)

How to Pass a Social Media and Internet Check

The law is somewhat nebulous in this area. An employer doesn’t have to prove that they refused a new hire based on their social media presence. In states with at-will employment laws, current employees may legally be dismissed based on their online presence.

If you’re concerned about your employer searching for your social media presence, it’s best to keep your identifiable presence benign (e.g., on Facebook, where real names are required). Sites like Twitter and Tumblr allow you to remain anonymous and can’t be searched by your employer — if you’re looking to vent about corporate practices publicly, these are a safer place to do it than on a profile with your name and image.

Passing Different Types of Background Checks

For most types of background checks, a clean record and an honest approach are your best tools. Never attempt to conceal information in these cases.

For checks like credit history, remember that this is private information and politely ask why it’s relevant. If at any point you feel that information is being used in an unfairly discriminatory way, you may have cause to raise a legal dispute — but you’re probably best staying away from that employer anyway.