When you know you are going to be on the job market, take the following steps to reduce the chances that you and/or the potential employer will be “surprised” by information found in the background check process:
* Order a copy of your credit report. If there is something you do not recognize or that you disagree with, dispute the information with the creditor and/or credit bureau before you have to explain it to the interviewer. Another individual’s name may appear on your credit report. This happens when someone mistakenly writes down the wrong Social Security number on a credit application causing that name to appear on your file. Or you might be a victim of identity theft.
* Check court records. If you have an arrest record or have been involved in court cases, go to the county where this took place and inspect the files. Make sure the information is correct and up to date.
Reporting agencies often report felony convictions when the consumer truly believes the crime was reduced to a misdemeanor, or that it was reported as a misdemeanor conviction when the consumer thought the charge was reduced to an infraction. Court records are not always updated correctly. For example, a signature that was needed to reduce the charges might not have been obtained or recorded by the court. Don’t rely on what your attorney may have told you. If you think the conviction was expunged or dismissed, get a certified copy of your report from the court. For an explanation of expungement, visit www.epic.org/privacy/expungement.
* Check DMV records. Request a copy of your driving record from the Department of Motor Vehicles, especially if you are applying for a job that involves driving.
Many employers ask on their application if you were ever convicted of a crime. Or they might word the question to ask whether you have ever been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor. Typically, the application says you do not have to divulge a case that was expunged or dismissed, or that was a minor traffic violation.
Don’t be confused. A DUI (driving under the influence) or DWI (driving while intoxicated) conviction is not considered a minor traffic infraction. Applicants with a DUI or DWI who have not checked “yes” on a job application may be denied employment for falsifying the form — even when the incident occurred only once or happened many years before. The employer perceives this as dishonesty, even though the applicant might only have been confused by the question.
* Do your own background check. If you want to see what an employer’s background check might uncover, hire a company that specializes in such reports to conduct one for you. (see www.realbackgroundchecks.com) That way, you can discover if the data bases of information vendors contain erroneous or misleading information. (Consult the Yellow Pages under “Investigators.”) Or, you can use one of the many online search services to find out what an employer would learn if conducting a background check in this way.
* Ask to see a copy of your personnel file from your old job. Even if you do not work there anymore, state law might enable you to see your file. Under California law, you can access your file until at least a year from the last date of employment. And you are allowed to make copies of documents in your file that have your signature on them. (California Labor Code §432.) You may also want to ask if your former employer has a policy about the release of personnel records. Many companies limit the amount of information they disclose.
* Read the fine print carefully. When you sign a job application, you will be asked to sign a consent form if a background check is conducted. Read this statement carefully and ask questions if the authorization statement is not clear. Unfortunately, jobseekers are in an awkward position, since refusing to authorize a background check may jeopardize the chances of getting the job.
Notice of a background check has to be on a separate form. The only other information this form can include is your authorization and information that identifies you. Neither the notice of a background check nor any other form should ask questions like “race,” “sex,” “full date of birth,” or “maiden name.” Such questions violate the federal Equal Employment Opportunity laws. And, you should not be asked to sign any document that waives your right to sue a screening company or the employer for violations of the law.
* Tell neighbors and work colleagues, past and present, that they might be asked to provide information about you. This helps avoid suspicion and alerts you to possible problems. In addition, their prior knowledge gives them permission to disclose information to the investigator. Forewarning others speeds up the process and helps you get the job faster.
* Clean up your “digital dirt.” Conduct a search on your name — in quotation marks — in the major search engines such as Google and Yahoo. If you find unflattering references, contact the Web site to learn if and how you can remove them. If you have created profiles in popular social networking Web sites such as MySpace and Facebook, review, and if necessary, edit what you have posted to make sure that an employer would not be offended.
Do not underestimate the power of your online reputation to sway potential employers. A report commissioned by Microsoft, Inc., issued in January 2010, found that only 15% of consumers surveyed thought what they posted online had any effect on their job prospects. In sharp contrast, the report found that 75% of the recruiters surveyed reported formal policies that required online research of applications. To read the full Microsoft report, go to: http://www.microsoft.com/privacy/dpd/research.aspx
Do you blog? Re-read your entries from the perspective of a potential employer. Remove or edit postings that could harm your jobseeking efforts. But don’t necessarily remove Web content that shines a light on your positive achievements. A personal Web site or blog that highlights your good deeds could benefit you. You can read more about cleaning up your “digital dirt” at www.abilitiesenhanced.com/digital-dirt.pdf.
* Request previous background check reports. If you have been the subject of a background check covered by the FCRA, you may be entitled to receive a copy of your “file” from the employment screening company. If you do not know the name of the screening company, ask the employer who requested the check.