The 14 Background Check Red Flags to Look Out For

Background check red flags

Laura Holton

Laura is a professional writer specializing in content aimed at small businesses and entrepreneurs. She has helped countless startups find the information they needed to take their ventures to the next level.

You put a lot of effort into the hiring process to ensure you find the perfect employee for your company. All your hard work goes to waste, though, if you fail to conduct a proper background check. Candidates can say whatever they want and put whatever they like on their resumes. The only way to ensure they are telling the truth and not hiding anything is to do some investigation yourself.

But what exactly are you trying to find? There are actually a number of background check red flags to look out for. Any one of them may suggest that you should opt for a different candidate.

How to Do a Background Check

First, it’s important to know how to conduct a background check. Otherwise, you may overlook some red flags entirely.

Step 1: Inform the Candidate

You should let candidates know before you run a background check. For instance, it’s necessary to receive permission before contacting schools for transcripts, running credit reports, and looking up military records. You’ll also need permission if you’re contracting another company to run the background check for you.

Step 2: Read State Laws

Each state has different laws about what you are allowed to include in a background check. For instance, you may be prohibited from checking credit history or you may only be able to take recent criminal convictions into account.

Step 3: Check in All the Necessary Places

You may need to check some or all of the following when doing a background check:

  • Social security numbers
  • National and county records to look at criminal history
  • Address history — if candidates have lived in other jurisdictions recently, you may want to check records in these places as well to assess criminal history
  • The national sex offender registry
  • School records
  • The U.S. terror watch list — particularly for jobs in security
  • A credit reporting agency — it must be FCRA compliant

Step 4: Run Other Relevant Checks

Depending on the position, you may also need to assess the candidate’s skills and knowledge or conduct a drug screening.

Step 5: Call References

The last thing to do is call the candidate’s references. You can use the references to confirm key details, such as where the candidate worked, for how long, what the job involved, and reason for leaving.

In addition, you should ask references about what makes the candidate a good fit for a position at your company, find out about strengths and weaknesses, and discover what it would be like to work with the candidate. End by asking references if there was anything they didn’t have the chance to say and would like you to know about.

You can use the exact same process to find both an in-person employee and before hiring a remote worker.

Important Background Check Red Flags

Now you know what to do, all that’s left is to learn what to look out for. As well as employment background check red flags, this will include other warning signs, like discrepancies in education and skills or a criminal record.

1. Refusal to Receive a Background Check

Candidates should be willing to undergo a background check. A refusal to receive a check is often an indication the candidate is hiding something. As you can dismiss candidates from consideration without consequences if they refuse a background check, it’s better to move on to another applicant if this happens.

2. Inconsistencies with the Resume

One of the first things to look for is if claims on a candidate’s resume match reality. There are several aspects to examine for inconsistencies, including employment history and education. For instance, candidates may state that they worked longer at a company than they actually did, hide a period of unemployment, or claim to have qualifications when they actually dropped out of school without graduating. Alternatively, candidates may just fabricate something entirely.

Always consider how grave the discrepancy is. For example, a candidate could make a mistake about employment history. It’s easy to mix up months — although an error in terms of years is probably intentional.

3. Failing Skill Tests

Candidates may lie about the skills they possess or exaggerate their proficiencies. Whereas this is harder to check than employment and education, you can always use tests to assess applicants’ skills. A candidate who does worse than you would expect raises a red flag.

4. Many Short-Term Jobs

You may notice that a candidate has many jobs lasting a short amount of time each. This could be a sign that the employee won’t stick around long at your company.

However, there could be a valid reason for the short-term jobs — and you need to rule out these other possibilities. It’s common to take on short-term jobs as a temp worker at an agency, when doing seasonal work, or when gaining experience through internships. Both look at the types of jobs and ask the candidate for clarification.

5. Repeated Unemployment

Something else you may notice is frequent periods of unemployment. These could suggest that the candidate has been laid off multiple times and was unable to find another job (perhaps because of poor performance in the past). Alternatively, the employee may have a bad attitude or become bored easily and, as a result, quit often.

Bear in mind, though, that gaps in employment could also be because applicants only include relevant experience on their resumes. Another possibility is that the candidate has a valid reason for periods of unemployment, such as maternity leave, taking time as a stay-at-home parent, illness, or caring for a family member. It’s always better to ask than to jump to conclusions.

5. Missing Relevant Experience

The opposite of the above is a resume that doesn’t feature relevant past experience the candidate has. If the applicant worked in a related position and doesn’t want you to know about this, you need to find out why.

7. Criminal History

Unless your company is based in a state where you are not allowed to ask about criminal history, candidates should let you know about any convictions at the beginning of the application process. You can then decide if these convictions have any relevance to the position.

If you are required by law to know about employees’ criminal history, it is important you double check the information yourself. Failure to do so could put your company at risk. For instance, if you hire someone with a criminal background and the employee commits a crime at work, your company could be liable.

8. Failed Drug Tests

You may need to request a drug test if the position involves operating machinery, driving, or carrying out any activities that require the employee to be free from the influence of drugs and alcohol. A failed drug test is important, as it could mean the candidate may put your clients or other employees at risk.

9. Driving Records

Another thing to check if the position involves driving is candidates’ driving records. Look for a history of speeding, DUIs, and any convictions related to driving.

10. Poor Credit History

It’s worthwhile doing a credit check if the position involves the management of funds or spending on the business’s behalf. There’s no need for candidates to have a great credit history, but major problems could be a red flag.

11. Bankruptcy

If you’re hiring someone for a financial position, you may also like to check for bankruptcy filings. However, as you won’t be able to find out why the candidate filed for bankruptcy, it is important to ask. After all, bankruptcy could be due to an unforeseeable event like a medical issue or divorce. Plus, by asking you may also discover how the candidate overcame money troubles.

12. Bad References

You may think bad references are a definite red flag, but you do need to take them with a grain of salt. There could be many reasons why a candidate doesn’t receive a glowing recommendation. Whereas it’s true that a subpar reference may suggest the candidate had a bad attitude or poor performance, it could also be down to personality clashes. The best way to assess references is to talk to multiple people and look for trends.

13. Social Media

Another way to find out about a candidate’s character is to look at social media profiles. Whereas it’s an unethical business practice to rule out someone based on political views, you may like to opt for a different applicant if you find a candidate has questionable values or is posting hate speech. In fact, this could save your company trouble in the future.

14. Legal Work Status

Finally, you need to ensure that the candidate is eligible to work in the U.S. As well as checking social security numbers, you must require all applicants to fill out an I-9 Form.

To ensure you always notice red flags in a background check, it’s critical to use a consistent process. Before you implement a new procedure, talk to your lawyer to make sure it has no legal issues. If any red flags do crop up in the hiring process, always discuss them with the candidate to rule out the possibility of a mistake or misunderstanding.

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