You’re about to interview for your dream job, but there’s just one problem: your background is not 100 percent clean. Maybe you received a DUI, or were arrested at a protest. Should you refuse to agree to a background check, so that your prospective employer never sees that black mark? Or is there a better approach?
Background checks, credit checks, motor vehicle checks, and even FBI clearances are standard procedure for companies hiring new employees, according to Lola Mason, executive production assistant for brand and business management company Opulence Enterprises.
Are they allowed to do that?
Not only are they allowed to do so, but many companies have a strict policy that no one will begin employment unless and until a background check has been conducted. Nervous job seekers might argue that this review of their past is an invasion of privacy. But the fact is that, unless a prospective employer asks for medical or genetic information, the background check is perfectly legal.
Roy Cohen, career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide, has advised many job-seekers with backgrounds that were “less than pristine and where a simple background check would reveal their embarrassment.” To conduct that check, the prospective employer will obtain your permission. “You don’t have to give it,” says Cohen, “but then they do have the right to reject you.”
Rather than refusing to give permission, as a rule, he encourages his clients to be forthcoming about whatever it is they fear will be revealed by this simple investigation.
What kind of check will they do?
Depending on the job you’re pursuing, you might be subject to one or more types of background checks. A typical hiring policy might include the following:
- All candidates will undergo a general background check.
- Candidates who will be driving for the company will need a motor vehicle report.
- Candidates who will be working in a financial position will undergo a credit check.
- Candidates who will be working with minors will need publicly available clearances, such as those provided by the Department of Public Welfare and the FBI.
Generally, the hiring company pays the cost of obtaining such information. But in some cases, particularly with publicly available clearances that can be obtained online, that cost may lie with the job seeker. Whether or not it is reimbursed is entirely up to the employer.
If they do it for one, they must do it for all
When questions about background are asked, or when a background check is performed, the process must be the same for every job candidate. “When you are selected out based on characteristics like race, national origin, color of your complexion, sex, sexual orientation, religion, disability, or age, you are being treated differently and discrimination may be at play,” explains Cohen.
Mason adds that challenges to the background check are on the rise. “In recent years, there have been claims that these policies disproportionately affect racial and ethnic minorities negatively,” she said, “but such claims have not prevented companies from continuing to utilize these policies to determine employee eligibility and suitability.”
If you feel you’ve been treated unfairly by the background check—or any part of the job interview process—you can sue, but it’s often an uphill battle. The challenge, according to Cohen, is twofold: to prove discrimination and to pay for legal representation. Commenting on the second challenge, he notes that “companies typically have far deeper pockets than candidates.” That said, a low-cost consultation with an employment attorney can be a wise investment, as he or she can advise you as to whether or not you have a valid case.
Checkered past? Honesty is the best policy
If you do have a problem in your past, it is a good idea to reveal that information up front. “Tell your interviewers about what happened and why and how you have changed,” advises Cohen. “Although the employer may still reject you as a candidate, it is better to know your status at the start. Alternatively, by providing context you may be able to avoid rejection.”
Cohen describes the case of a client who was arrested for DUI when he was a college student. “Despite an almost perfect academic record and a commitment to good health, community service, and sobriety, he was unable to get past the initial screen for jobs at Wall Street firms, which tend to be extremely conservative.”
The job seeker found himself immediately disqualified each time a background check revealed his arrest. “We took a proactive approach to his job search and told his story from the start,” says Cohen. “By providing context, he was able to explain an issue that was no longer relevant.”
The approach worked, and the young man was hired by a small firm who appreciated his honesty. Today, years later, he is a managing director at a top Wall Street firm. “It was just the initial barrier to entry that he needed to address,” says Cohen.