If you thought background checks were only for FBI agents or high-level research scientists, you were wrong. Background checks are required for a variety of positions in business, government, day care, and other sectors. And they are becoming a routine part of the hiring process for faculty and staff positions in higher education.
The use of background checks in academe is not only more widespread than you might think, but also on the rise. As administrators in the career-advising office at the University of Chicago, we find ourselves guiding more and more Ph.D.'s through the experience of a background check. Here are answers to some common questions we've encountered.
What are background checks?
For the type of screening that employers do, "background check" is a catch-all term that can encompass anything from simply obtaining a credit report to conducting an intense verification of someone's background. The latter could involve an investigation -- in person -- of your previous addresses and lengthy interviews with your extended family, neighbors, and friends.
Beyond checking your references and verifying your employment history, a background check might also include a review of civil and/or criminal records, a verification of your education and any certifications, and a check of your credit history.
Much of this information is public, although employers might have to pay a fee to access it. Many institutions hire third-party organizations to do their checks for them.
Employers can't dig back forever. Some limitations do exist: Generally, employers aren't allowed access to bankruptcy information that is more than 10 years old, or to other civil issues after seven years. What sort of information is collected can also vary, depending on whether the check is conducted in house, or by an outside company.
Why Are Background Checks on the Rise?
In many fields of employment, such checks are conducted, in part, to shield employers from potential litigation and also as a result of security concerns in a post-9/11 world.
In academe, the issue came to the forefront with the stunning discovery in 2003 that Pennsylvania State University had unknowingly hired a tenured professor who had been convicted of murder in Texas. Regardless of whether his conviction impinged his teaching skills the case did have a profound effect on the members of faculty search committees, who were shocked into reassessing their hiring processes and requirements.
For academics, background checks can crop up at a number of points and across a number of positions. As a candidate, you may be in for a background check if you are applying for positions that involve access to confidential or secure material, or for jobs that have a good deal of student contact (particularly with younger students).
Students themselves are not always exempt from background checks. In fact, graduate students and postdocs who want to save money by living in the dormitories and working as RA's typically have to submit to one.
At our institution, even certain summer internships and work-study positions require a background check. For example, we found that positions teaching English as a second language to adults, summer internships with the park district, and survey research positions all required the applicant to undergo a background check, as did coaching positions.
Two other hot spots where background checks are almost universally conducted are for academics in the health professions and the sciences (particularly researchers), and academics who work with children.
How Will You Know if a Background Check Is Required?
Often that information will be included in the job description itself, frequently in the "qualifications" section. Other employers may not inform you about the check until you've passed a first-round screening process, or until they've brought you in for an interview and have decided they are serious about your application. In any case, employers are required to get your permission to run a background check, and you are entitled to see a copy of the report.
When an employer requests a background check, how should you handle it?
Take a deep breath, stay calm, and remember that the request is not a direct reflection of the employer's perception of you. Rather, it is a process that it goes through for everyone applying for that position. If the hiring committee wasn't interested in you as a candidate, it wouldn't spend the time and money on checking you out.
If you have nothing in your records that could pose a problem, smile, give consent, and move on to the next stage of the hiring process. If you are concerned about potentially damaging information that could surface, keep reading.
Making Sure It's Accurate
Once you know that a background check is required, you can protect yourself from any potential problems by ensuring that the information is accurate. Arm yourself with your own historical documents. Order a copy of your own credit report, driving record, and, if you have a court history, legal records.
Be aware that there are three credit-reporting agencies -- Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion -- all of which may have differing information on your credit history. To be safe, you may want to order copies of your report from all three. This is also a good time to read and, if possible, copy your personnel file from your last place of employment. As always, notify your references that they are about to be contacted.
If there's nothing questionable in your background, you probably have nothing to worry about. However, clerical errors do happen, and that's why it is worth your time to have copies of your own records and any public records that pertain to you.
It's probably not necessary to run your own background check on yourself. But if you do decide to do that, make sure you hire a legitimate company. Call the Better Business Bureau to see if any complaints have been lodged against the company before handing over your money. While many companies offer background-check services online, you are probably better off just hiring a local company.
What to Do When There Is a Problem
You're not alone. Plenty of otherwise normal people have background issues, including misdemeanor and felony convictions. Perhaps you struggled through graduate school and declared bankruptcy. Maybe you are a political activist who has been arrested at a demonstration or two. Maybe you have a drunken-driving conviction, received something other than an honorable discharge from the military, or have some other skeleton in your closet.
A first step is to assess whether the position will even require a background check.
If the college does not require candidates to submit to one, then it becomes a personal and ethical decision of whether to disclose potentially damaging information. Some questions you might want to ask yourself: Am I misrepresenting myself if I don't disclose this? Do I feel that this issue (e.g., a drunken-driving record) will affect my ability to do the job? Is this personal information that I feel uncomfortable disclosing? Talking with a trusted friend, partner, or your career center also may help you decide whether to volunteer the information.
If you know that the position will require a background check, it remains a personal and ethical decision of what you should volunteer in advance.
In that case, ask yourself some of the same questions mentioned above. If you feel that the problem was relatively minor and easily explainable, one course of action is to bring it up yourself before the background check occurs -- a sort of pre-emptive strike. Disclose what happened along with any argument you think might be persuasive regarding why it happened, what you learned from it, and/or any steps you've taken to make sure it won't happen again.
If the transgression was major -- even if you wait to talk about it until it surfaces in the check -- prepare yourself beforehand. What arguments might employers make that could prevent you from being hired? Anticipate their concerns and, if you feel comfortable and have a trusted friend, partner, or career counselor, role-play a possible conversation where those issues are discussed.
Again, remember that the employer is not "out to get you" -- and try not to become emotional when discussing the issue. The important thing is that you deal with the background issue in such a way that it does not stand between you and your career.
For More Information
The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act sets national standards for employment screening. Employers are not required to screen employees; the law is meant to protect your rights to privacy. For more information on the law and on other privacy rights, an excellent and authoritative resource is the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer education, research, and advocacy program.
The American Association of University Professors has dealt with this issue in the context of academic freedom in a time of national security. A policy statement is available on its Web site.