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How Far Back Does a Background Check Go?

Job applicant talking to manager and nervous about an employer background check

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Background checks are intimidating — even for individuals with squeaky clean pasts — especially when housing or employment is conditioned on passing. How far back does a background check go? Will a juvenile record show up? What about a recent DUI charge?

Federal, state, and local laws govern the use of background checks in hiring. Some federal and state laws limit background search agencies to information from the past seven years, while some states go back as far as 10 years. There are exceptions allowing agencies to search further back. Here’s a look at some of those timeframes and how they might impact you.

Use of Background Checks in Hiring

Verifying information on a job applicant’s resumé is a smart move, but the practice can lead to discriminatory hiring practices against those with criminal records. Fortunately, the concept of “second chance” or “fair chance” hiring is encouraging employers to hire formerly incarcerated individuals rather than penalizing them for their history. Similarly, “Ban-the-Box” laws in many states prohibit employers from asking about felony arrests or convictions on applications, allowing them to get to know applicants better before searching their criminal history.

However, background checks are still common pre-employment practices and can also be conducted during employment. This can be part of normal rescreening or triggered by a promotion or disciplinary action.

The good news is employers must be transparent. U.S. federal law protects applicants undergoing background checks in several ways, two of the most significant being the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws.

FCRA

The FCRA protects individuals subject to screenings in the following ways:

  • An employer must tell you, clearly and in writing, that the background information can be used to decide whether they hire you.
  • You must give written permission to perform the background check.
  • Background check 7-year limit on providing background history to clients, including arrests and non-convictions.

EEO laws

  • No matter what the job is, employers cannot discriminate based on race, color, national origin, sex, religion, disability, genetics, or age. That includes asking for background information for any of these reasons.
  • Employers cannot have policies that seem fair at face value but disadvantage a particular group, unless necessary to conduct business.
  • Employers must be extra careful if a red flag on your background check was caused by a disability.

State and local law govern the use of background information in hiring as well. Most limit the number of years subject to a background check to seven or 10. Some state laws also prohibit background check agencies from sharing information on arrests that didn’t result in convictions. Every state is different, and your prospective employer is required to tell you what information is being requested.

Criminal vs. Federal Background Checks

Depending on the reason for your background check, you may be subject to either a federal check or nationwide check. A federal background check searches through the federal court system for violations of federal law, such as identity theft or fraud. A nationwide check, on the other hand, searches all 50 states’ court systems for violations of state and local law. If something of interest comes up in a nationwide search, the agency conducting the search may request further information through state and local records searches.

How Far Back Does a Federal Background Check Go?

Background check agencies can only share information from the past seven or 10 years, depending on the state. Keep in mind federal criminal background checks are different than background checks for federal employment, which can search as far back as a federal agency wants.

How Far Back Does a Criminal Background Check Go?

Again, most states or municipalities have decided background checks are limited to seven or 10 years. Employers are not required to look back even seven years. Many want to fill vacancies quickly, and only care about more recent information. On the other hand, there are exceptions for jobs paying over a certain salary or for executive level positions, which can reach back farther than seven or ten years.

Cleaning Up Your Record

Another bit of good news: You can have recent criminal and financial activity removed in some instances. Removing information from your criminal record is called “expungement” and must be ordered by a state court.

States limit the charges eligible for expungement, with the most serious criminal offenses including kidnapping, rape, and murder usually deemed ineligible. Juvenile records and non-violent offenses are often eligible for expungement. To have items expunged from your record, hire an attorney to file a petition in the court where the charge or conviction occurred.

Negative credit report items within seven years are more difficult to remove. If you have a past due account, you can offer to pay the balance in exchange for the creditor to have it removed from your account. You can also write a letter asking for negative information about resolved issues to be removed. Neither instance requires the creditor to cooperate, but it is worth asking if you’re stressed about your background check. Of course, if you feel something is inaccurate on your credit report, contact the credit reporting agency to dispute it.

Nervous About How Far Back Your Background Check Will Go?

If you’re expecting to undergo a background check for a job that you have, or that you want to have, or if you’re concerned about possible workplace discrimination, consider reaching out to an employment law attorney for help. Get started today with a free initial review of your case.

Disclaimer

This article contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. The Law Dictionary is not a law firm, and this page does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

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