How Far Back Do Background Checks Go?

Background Checks: How Far Back Do They Go?

Background checks have now become well and truly embedded in employee recruitment best practices across the globe.

Get them right, and your new recruit can be a boon for your company, but one small oversight can potentially result in problems ranging from a small embarrassment to a gigantic crisis.

That’s why such checks should be carried out efficiently while strictly adhering to the dos and don’ts of any applicable legal framework.

Here we will discuss this practice from the perspective of a timeframe – how far back do background checks go – and will explore both legal and practical aspects that need to be considered.

How many years back does a background check go?

Unfortunately, there is no single and simple answer. The background check length can depend on the market(s) for which you are recruiting and based on local laws.

Other factors include the level at which the employee will join, their remuneration, etc. This means extensive background checks are more likely to be needed when recruitment is for a prominent position in a company’s hierarchy and for job profiles that come with higher remuneration.

One can apply the seven-to-ten-year cut-off as a general rule of the thumb in most cases. This is particularly true of credit or criminal background checks, though educational and employment history can be cross-checked to a somewhat greater extent.

How far back does a criminal background check go?

Recent cases involving high-profile individuals have shown that an outstanding track record in delivering value at work does not automatically reflect a blemish-free personality.

Thorough checks for any criminal history are relatively easy in most developed countries and are used to establish if a candidate has any prior convictions or pending court cases

Here, 7-10 years is widely accepted as a reasonable timeframe, though the legal cut-off varies quite a bit across geographies.

Do double check what the local laws say in this regard. Such checks have to be tempered with the growing realization that one cannot let a minor misdemeanor from the past permanently mar a person’s reputation. 

Nor should a single earlier error (even if more serious) prove to be an insurmountable obstacle for persons who display genuine regret and a desire to change.

Many regions have fair hiring and/or ban-the-box regulations and a near-total ban on checking for, or reporting, any juvenile violations due to this. One should study and comply with them.

Similar restrictions often govern procedures for how long background checks go back when it comes to credit rating or business bankruptcies.

Managers must follow procedures laid down under laws like the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) in the US, Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) in Canada, and others in this regard.

How far back do employment background checks go?

When it comes to employment, and in most cases, educational history, the restrictions on how long the background checks go back are less clearly defined. For most positions, the ‘7-10 year’ rule usually applies.

Verifying a person’s employment history is somewhat complex. There has to be a balance between protecting the privacy and genuine cross-checking of credentials and safeguarding against any hint that the person is exploring fresh avenues getting back to the current employer.

For this reason, in most cases, the company where the applicant is presently employed will never be approached directly; necessary information is usually verified based on documentary proof such as appointment letters, pay slips, bank and tax records, etc.

Further, discreet checks with earlier employers, where necessary, are usually carried out through specialist agencies, ensuring a certain degree of anonymity.

Checks on the educational background are relatively easy and assume greater importance for those entering the workforce for the first time or in the early phases of one’s career.

At times they are also carried out to screen applicants for positions that require specific knowledge and skills. False claims and vague information that is not easy to verify can come back to haunt one, as many public figures have found out.

Background Checks: Some Additional Considerations

There are also new aspects that have emerged in the age of social media and digital records. Stories of minor misadventures publicly shared in one’s younger days, photographs that seem different when seen out of context, and political comments made in the heat of the moment are now near-permanently recorded on some server somewhere. Employees need to bear this in mind.

On the other side, some lawsuits in recent years have led to the realization that background checks, when carried out improperly or inadequately, can sometimes result in unnecessary bad publicity (who wants to answer awkward questions to the press or respond on social media) and large liability payouts (US courts have ensured some significant settlements).

As always, the devil is in the details: make sure you get them right!

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