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What questions can employers legally ask?

By Nick Reddin

Question:

What questions can employers legally ask?  When dealing with background checks, are there limits to how far back they can go?  Are they just looking for felonies or misdemeanors too?  I hate answering these questions.  I am in the process of getting an assault charge cleared from 12 years ago that was a false charge to begin with.

This is a great question that a lot of people ask and want to understand. On the surface it may seem like a simple question. But it’s really not – not for the person filling out the application and not for the employer.

First let me state that employers can legally ask any question that relates to your criminal background. They can go back as far as they feel necessary and can do so in regards to felonies or misdemeanors.

If there is a felony or misdemeanor on your criminal background, it is easy to understand why you and many others would hate to answer these questions. Sometimes the information on your criminal background may be misconstrued or there may be a reason why it truly is not your fault. The problem companies face is that they have to handle all criminal background checks and outcomes exactly the same.

Here’s an example. You’re hanging out with a friend who, unbeknownst to you, shoplifted. Even though you didn’t know your friend was shoplifting, you now have a misdemeanor accessory shoplifting charge on your record. That charge will show up when a company you would like to work for does a criminal background check. No matter how true and corroborated your story of unknown involvement is, that company has to deal with your results the same way as your friend who really did the shoplifting. Unless you have it expunged from your record, it’s considered true. I understand getting things expunged takes time and effort, but I’m sure your career is worth it.

The biggest mistake people make in this type of situation is not answering the question truthfully on the application. A truthful answer is important for many reasons. One of which is that not all companies exclude potential employees for the same type of crimes. In other words, some companies may only exclude people who have theft and drug charges. Other companies may exclude people who have violence and driving issues. By not answering the question truthfully though, you will be excluded no matter what for lying on your application. In corporate America termination for lying on the application is standard policy.

When filling out your application, you can typically address your background and what your issues are with your record up front. By doing this you’ll know whether you’ll be excluded from consideration and at the same time it allows you an opportunity to tell your side of the story. And while that may not get you the job, it may put you in consideration once the record is removed or goes beyond the time period they go back when running their criminal background checks.

In response to length of time that an employer can go back is again up to that employer. The typical timeframe is five to seven years. But again, that depends on the job you’re applying for. If you’re going to work for a utility company and that company is partially regulated by Homeland Security, their criminal background check may go back twelve years and include checking driving, education, and even friends. Every position and every company has different parameters for what is acceptable and what isn’t and it is usually determined by the position and regulatory aspects of that company and industry.

The other side of the coin is that there are a lot of companies that do no background checks whatsoever. Of course typically you’re not going to know who does and who doesn’t. Using a staffing company like Manpower can help in this scenario since not all of their customers require background checks. There they can at least help you get a job with an employer where your background is not grounds for consideration.

Let me detail a little bit about what a background check is and what it may consist of. A background check is any verification of an applicant at any time in the hiring process. Background checks can range from checking references you have provided to criminal background. Also some companies will perform driving records checks and credit history if there is a compelling reason attached to the position. For example, in some states if you are going to be working directly with children companies will require a child abuse records background check is done.

Whichever type of background check that a company does, they’ll typically do so for all applicants at the same point in the hiring process. They have to maintain a high level of sensitivity and security of the information obtained. So the results never go beyond the company you are applying and interviewing with. The timing of a criminal background check will almost always precede an offer or an offer will be given contingent on the results.

Remember, honesty and explanations on job applications and in interviews are the best policy. Nobody is perfect and sometimes we do things that end up on our criminal records. I know corporate regulations can make it difficult to get a job and continue climbing the corporate ladder. But there are plenty of companies willing to give second chances for those that have shown they can handle themselves in the workplace.

Once you land that next job, make sure to show up on time and be engaged in the work you are doing. Even if it is not your dream job and even if you don’t like it, make sure the company is aware that you appreciate the job they have given you. This may be your chance to earn a great reference and put some time between you and the past. Never underestimate the opportunity given to you and where it may take you.