Labor and Employment

Getting to Know You: Employment Background Checks

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Everyone needs and expects a little privacy. There are things about ourselves we don't want the whole world to know about. So, it may come as a surprise to find out when you're looking for a new job, a prospective employer may run a background check and get all sorts of information about you.

It's perfectly legal, too, so long as some rules are followed. For instance, you have to give your permission, and the employer doesn't discriminate against you.

Information Employers Look At

An employer can get information about you if it's relevant to a particular job. For example, if you're applying for a job as a security guard, the employer may want to know if you have a criminal record.

A job that requires you to drive a delivery truck may lead to the employer to look for information about your driving record. Are there any driving-relating crimes in your past, and do you have a valid driver's license?

If you give your consent, the employer usually can get your:

However, not all this information is available to employers in all states. State laws vary on the privacy rights for employees and job applicants. For example, because worker's compensation records may give a prospective employer private information about your health condition or disability, the use of these records is often very restricted.

Federal law may play a role, too. For instance, in nearly all situations, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) stops employers from asking for or getting your medical records.

Your Consent is Needed

A prospective employer must get your consent (usually written) before running a background check on you. If the check includes a credit check, your written consent is required by law. A credit check is allowed only if the information sought is job-related and consistent with "business necessity." Also, the employer must tell you if you're weren't hired because of any information in your credit report.

Employers Can't Discriminate Against You

An employer can't discriminate against you in running a background check. Discrimination is the intentional and unfair or unequal treatment of you (or a group of people) based on your race, color, ethnic group, national origin, sex, religion, age or disability.

In some areas of the law, it's illegal to discriminate against you based on your family or marital status. In some states, discrimination based on your sexual orientation is illegal.

How to Recognize Discrimination

Signs of discrimination include:

  • Background checks for information that's not relevant to the particular job
  • Background checks on certain classes of job-applicants, such as those who belong to a particular race or religion
  • Employers' prying unnecessarily into information that's private and not necessary for a hiring decision related to the particular job

You can file a discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) if you think an employer has treated you unfairly. The EEOC will review your claim and let you know whether you can sue the employer.

Whether it's a voluntary career change or an absolute necessity, protect your privacy and your rights when hunting for a new job by knowing what personal information an employer can and can't consider when making a hiring decision.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can a prospective employer legally require a background check as part of the application process?
  • Can an employer charge me the costs of a background check?
  • Am I entitled to a copy of any information an employer gets from running a background check on me?
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