When a Background Check Makes for Tough Interview Questions

Everyone faces curveballs in interviews. But when can skeletons in your closet reach out to hurt your chances?


Every career guide ever written covers the “tough” job interview questions: Why do you want to work here? What is your greatest weakness? And other behavioral interview questions.

That advice rarely extends to questions that cut closer to home: explaining away the DWI you got on the way back from dinner with a client or the rumors of fraud that painted everyone laid off from the finance department where you worked after the stock price collapsed. There is little to prepare you to answer questions about the well-respected boss who never got along with you and asked you to resign or the sexual-harassment charge leveled against you but dismissed, years earlier.

It is not uncommon to have something lurking in your past or left off your resume that might upset your job search or present an obstacle in interview. And it needn’t be an Enron-scale scandal to cause you concern. A black mark on your record (like a negative statement in an employment background check or a lie uncovered in an employment and education verification check) can be enough to send a hiring manager on to the next candidate.

Recruiters and investigators who conduct employment background checks advise job seekers to know what their records will say to a potential employer and be prepared to correct or explain them in an interview.

“If they got a degree at a diploma mill, that will be revealed in a respectable background check; if they didn’t work at an employer they listed, or didn’t have the job title they said they had, that will come out,” 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.

The problem for job seekers is that there isn’t a lot they can do to keep “secrets” under wraps while they’re job-searching or even afterward. If you have a black mark on your record, expect it to surface, Rosen said. “When a person with something minor in their background tries to hide it, they are taking a risk.”

“Almost everyone is doing background checks on every hire; it’s the quickest way to get rid of applicants,” said Jo Prabhu, founder and CEO of placement firm 1800Jobquest.com of Long Beach, Calif., and an expert on using background checks in hiring. “It goes even down to the administrative level; someone might be a felon or have some arrests. So they check everyone.”

What records matter?

Most employers aren’t even interested in your criminal past unless it’s relevant to the job for which you’re applying, Prabu said. Employers usually just want to know that you’ve done the time or paid the fine and that the whole thing was resolved at least two years ago, she said.

“I did have a woman who got a DUI on New Year’s Eve, but that was easy to explain,” Prabu said. “If it was something in college or not related to the job, employers aren’t interested.”

“If you’re applying for a financial position, they’ll do an additional credit check, and that might be relevant,” she said. “But they don’t check civil suits or other things. It’s too expensive, and it’s not relevant.”

“If during the last five years you were convicted of check fraud, and I was hiring you to do a job where you had access to finances, that would be a concern,” said Robert E. Capwell, chief knowledge officer at Employment Background Investigations Inc. of Owings Mills, Md. “If you were a registered sex offender and were working with children or with members of the opposite sex, that would be, too. The question is how long ago was the crime and how relevant is it to the job you’re discussing.”

Potential employers want to gauge their own level of risk or – more perversely if your black mark involves the kind of financial shenanigans that made Wall Streeters rich at the expense of regulations and their own stockholders – whether you’re still willing to play hardball.

“We’ll find out pretty quickly if you said you were the VP of operations (for an entire company) but it was only a department, and by verifying dates of employment, we’ll find out you said you worked somewhere for a year, but it was only six months and you got fired and then didn’t work anywhere for six months,” Capwell said. “Former employers can’t say much, but they are supposed to verify dates and titles.”

Full disclosure

About the only real solution to a glitch in an otherwise resume-polished background is full disclosure, investigators and recruiters agreed.

“Derogatory information honestly revealed and discussed by the applicant is much less harmful than if it’s discovered by a third party,” ESR’s Rosen said. “Even if the company’s not really looking, one of the most productive sources of background checks is co-workers.

“If you’re a six-figure person, you have to start with the assumption there are a lot of people working with you or under you who are interested and are going to look you up,” he said. “They’re ready to go on the Internet and see if you’re a sex offender – because that information isn’t hard for consumers to find – or what degrees you’re claiming in your LinkedIn profile or other business connection, and whether you ever went there.”

Since there’s not any real way to conceal derogatory information, it’s better to know what might be disclosed about you during a background check. Have a background check done on yourself to check that the information is accurate. If you find false information, you can try to correct the inaccuracies, but there is little you can do to hide negative, but accurate items, Prabhu said. The best advice is to be prepared to explain them and you can’t do that until you know what someone will find.

“There are a lot of people with things on their record that aren’t discharged – like a DUI that someone got a long time ago and then moved to another state before the state sent them a notice saying to pay the fine,” she said. “That would show up on your record looking as if you fled the state, even if it’s not true.”

“There is a dramatic increase in the number of searches being done and the types of tools that are being used,” Rosen said “There will almost always be a driving record, for example. It’s an inexpensive record to get, and it turns up DUIs or drug incidents that can reveal alcohol or drug problems that way.”

Honesty is about the only choice, especially when waffling about tough questions would raise enough red flags that a potential employer would either drop you or investigate further, according to Jim Villwock, an experienced financial-industry executive turned career coach and author of ” Whacked Again! Secrets to Getting Back on the Executive Saddle.

“What (hiring managers) want to know,” he said, “is, ‘Are you going to do the same thing to me?’ “