The Anatomy of a Background Check

Private investigators and former government agents share trade secrets about how they conduct employment background checks for hiring companies.


The questions most job seekers want answered about background checks are when they’ll be subject to one and what it will turn up.

Depending on the amount of effort and money a company is willing to spend, a background investigation of even a few days can turn up every place you’ve ever lived, every company for which you’ve worked and the gaps in your resume you tried to hide by fudging dates.

It will also turn up exaggerations or lies about your education or work history; a poor credit history; any lawsuits filed against you or those you’ve filed against others; and any sanctions or charges brought by any federal, regulatory or licensing agency, including state Bar Associations and the Securities and Exchange Commission, said Thomas G. Martin, a former agent for the Dept. of Justice, now president of Martin Investigative Services, Newport Beach, Calif., and author of Investigator Confidential.

A comprehensive search like that takes a lot of legwork and subscriptions to a variety of criminal, civil and demographic databases. However, what that research doesn’t turn up, a little chat will.

“We’ve taught interview and interrogation to the Dept. of Justice and all over the world,” Martin said. “A company will fly us in, and we can interrogate somebody and I will guarantee, knowing what questions to ask, how to ask and when to ask them, we will come out knowing everything there is to know about that person.” Usually it takes an hour or less, he said.

Checking out executive-level hires is part of routine due diligence for most companies, many of which are concerned about white-collar crime, risk of fraud, a history of sexual harassment or other unethical or troublesome behavior, said Robert E. Capwell, chief knowledge officer at Employment Background Investigations Inc. of Owings Mills, Md.

Identity check: Who are you?

For many job seekers the background check starts with the basics — an identity check. Most companies will run a check on your social security number, driver’s license, dates of birth and aliases or maiden names that may vary from birth certificates, to verify that you are who you say you are. From a hiring manager’s perspective your identity is not a given.

“There is a lot of identity theft out there, and not just for credit cards,” Capwell said. “There have been instances where someone tried to get a job using someone else’s identity. If you’re looking for a CFO, someone who has fiduciary responsibility or check-writing authority, you’d like to know it’s the person you were talking about.”

What will they find?

The most common employment background checks are a search of public-records databases, like criminal history, credit reports, civil suits and driving records, said Jo Prabhu, founder and CEO of placement firm of Long Beach, Calif., and an expert on using background checks in hiring. Prabu, who sometimes puts in 200 to 300 requests for background checks in a single week, says an average cost to the hiring company ranges between $150 and $180.

For that money a hiring manager can get reasonably good confirmation that candidates are who they say they are and get a decent picture of their backgrounds, said Les Rosen, former California deputy district attorney; president of Employment Screening Resources of Novato, Calif.; and founding member of the National Association of Professional Background Screeners.

Many, though not nearly all, states sell databases with criminal convictions, driving records, civil court-case results and other legal entanglements, and a qualified background-search company will buy or subscribe to all that are relevant. It will also pay people to search in person at county courthouses all over the country for records that are not yet computerized, calling past employers to verify dates of employment and job titles, calling colleges or universities to confirm any degrees a candidate claims as well, he said.

Not that big a risk, Martin believes. The quality of the background check depends on the quality of the investigation company and its ability to bridge gaps in the digital record.

“If someone tells you they can do a nationwide computer search and come up with a good result, they’re talking out their ****. A nationwide criminal-records search does not exist,” Martin said. “In California, which is one of the states where it’s easier to get the information, there are 58 counties and only about 15 are all online. If you did a mass murder in Curran County, an employer is not going to find out about it.

“Even on some of the good databases, ‘nationwide’ means every three or four states, and even those are not complete. You have to go to every county the person lived and check the courts in person.” Martin said.

For the most senior positions and the most costly background checks, some companies go even further. They will hire freelance investigators or contract researchers in most counties to check for records. Others will even contact and interview former colleagues, managers, even neighbors, investigators said.

What they won’t find

Don’t be too eager to disclose too much, though, Capwell said. If there’s a state law limiting employers to background criminal searches of seven years, don’t volunteer things that happened eight years ago. Prabhu’s standard search goes back 14 years, and it’s possible to go much farther back than that.

And it’s becoming easier to find out where a person lived by renting data from the U.S. Postal Service, magazine subscription companies, and other commercial databases that, using your name, Social Security Number or other data, can pinpoint every place you’ve lived and property you’ve owned, Martin said.

But employers can’t find out everything, and they’re not completely free to use everything they do find, Prabhu said.

The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act forbids companies from contracting out a background check without the written approval of the person being investigated, for example, she said.

Candidates have a right to see any background check report that comes back and to have a chance to correct any errors on it before any hiring decision is made, Rosen said. They also have the right to demand a re-investigation to verify facts that are in dispute.

“The pendulum has swung back pretty far in favor of the applicant,” Rosen said. “But that’s only true for outside companies. HR is allowed to do the investigation internally without permission, and there aren’t any real controls on people on the Internet.”