The Background Check

To get a good job you’ll probably need to go through a criminal background check, a drug screen, and maybe a check of your credit and/or driver’s license.  It is a perfectly legal and extremely common practice to run background checks and/or drug screens on either all applicants, or at least on the finalist, for many, if not most jobs.  You need to be ready and to recognize that your past behavior may affect your employability.

Typically, a company requesting a criminal background check is looking for evidence of violence or theft.  If they are an organization that deals with children or youth, they are specifically looking for crimes against children.  A credit check is typically only used for those people who might be handling finance or accounting.  They want to know if you can manage your own money before they let you manage theirs.  And many jobs involve operating a motor vehicle (yours or theirs) on company business, so you need to have a valid drivers license and not have a history of multiple accidents/tickets/etc.

Unfortunately, not everyone has a perfect record.  We all make mistakes, some just bigger than others.  If you believe your background could make it hard to get a specific job, you have two good choices and one bad choice.

The first good choice is to simply not apply for jobs you know you can’t get.  If you are a registered sex-offender, don’t even try to work at a school.  Bank robbers won’t get jobs at banks.  Huge debt or multiple bankruptcies may keep you from being a CFO.  Those are pretty cut-and-dried.

The other good answer is to be up front.  Let’s say five years ago you got in fight in a bar and were convicted of aggravated assault.  Be up-front about it.  Before you give them permission to run the criminal background check, tell them what happened.  Help them to understand the situation, hopefully that was a one-time thing and what you learned from that.  Admitting that there could be things on your record is way better than the recruiter being surprised to see them there.

The bad choice is to lie, deny, and deflect.  Blaming someone else for your bad behavior or trying to explain to a recruiter how you were a victim of circumstance, or of poor law enforcement, is probably not going to help you get the job.

So, if you have things from your past that might show up on a criminal background, credit, or driver’s license check, be up front about them rather than letting the hiring manager be surprised.  Honesty really is the best policy.  If you are struggling, this might help

Can They Do That?

Sometimes being an applicant is like being a second class citizen.  Companies do things to applicants that they don’t do to employees and I often get the question – can they do that?  I’m not a lawyer and I will not give legal advice.  But I can share with you some common practices and maybe tell you where you can learn more if you need to.

Drug screens, and physical examinations – Yes, employers have every right to ask you to take a pre-employment drug screen (of any format they feel is appropriate) and to pass a physical examination.  But, they can’t do either of these until after they have extended to you a conditional offer of employment (conditional on passing these medical tests).  The tests need to have some relationship to the work you’ll do or their policies – e.g. a drug-free workplace policy or a lifting capacity test for a warehouse worker.  (RE: the American’s with Disabilities Act and the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act)

Criminal Background and Credit Checks – yes, they can conduct these checks. Again, they should be conducted post-offer (but they don’t have to be) and you must sign an acknowledgment/consent before they investigate.  If they decide not to hire you based on what they learn they have to tell you about that and give you a copy of the report. (RE: the Fair Credit Reporting Act)

References and Social Media checks – yes, they can ask anyone they want to tell them about you and those people can tell them anything they want to tell them – as long what they tell them is the truth.  Where reference checks go awry is when the former supervisor is honest, and says that Bob was not a good worker, but nobody told Bob that, and in fact his personnel file is full of positive reviews.  Or, if Bob really was a sociopath and was fired for threatening to shoot his boss (while holding a gun) and the former supervisor says Bob’s a great guy – you should hire him.  Dishonesty will cause problems.  As your mother probably told you – if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

And yes, companies can go look at your Facebook profile and see pictures of you holding red cups and acting inappropriately and then decide not to hire you.  So, if you’re serious about your job search a) limit your web presence to your friends and b) don’t post things that might reflect on you poorly – have some common sense.

Withdraw the offer – probably yes.  Let’s say the company makes you an offer, then they conduct the background check and based on that they change their mind.  If a) they told you they were going to check your references, etc. and b) they told you the offer was contingent on the results of those checks, then absolutely, they can pull the plug.  If, however, they give you a written offer with no contingencies, and if you have not lied to them about anything (including enhancing your resume or lying on your application), then regardless of what they learn, it may be a little harder for them to walk away.  But let’s be serious, do you want to work someplace where they don’t want you?  That’s not a great way to start a relationship.

It gets ugly when they extend an offer, you accept, you quit your current job (maybe burn a bridge or two in the process) and then they change their mind.  That can happen. Hopefully everyone can be as open as possible and make sure you’re all on the same page before you put a match to those bridges.

Verbal Contracts – speaking of ugly, verbal contracts are the worst.  Imagine this, you’re interviewing and the manager says “Okay, even though you’re a CPA, we are going to offer you the position of accounting clerk, because that’s what I have open and its all HR will let me do. But after about a month I’ll promote you to Controller and we’ll quadruple your salary.”  You get the clerk offer, accept it, and six months later you’re still a clerk.  Can you sue them?  Maybe.  It depends on who the manager was (did he have any authority to say what he said) and the language he used.  Was that promotion based on the assumption that you perform well or did something else have to  happen first?  Bottom line, don’t take this deal.  If you’re looking to be the Controller then get it in writing, or be willing to be a clerk.

As an applicant you have some rights. You should know what they are, but you should also know what’s best for you.  You really don’t want to work with some jerks who don’t know how to treat an applicant.