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10 Red Flags You'll Find on Background Checks (& What To Do)

Erin Donaghue - Top10 Writer
Man conducting a job interview with potential employee
Do you know what to look for when running a background check? We do. Here are 10 common causes for concern when considering a new employee.

The National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS) shares that 96% of HR professionals say they run background checks when hiring new employees. That makes background checks “nearly universal”.

Those employers stated that their top reasons for conducting background checks were public safety, improving the quality of new hires, and protecting their company’s reputation.

To run a secure and successful business, you need to ensure the safety of your employees as well as your reputation. Take the time to learn which 10 “red flags” to take note of when running a background check on a potential new hire, and how to handle them when they come up.

1. Poor Credit History

Some employers review a candidate’s credit history as part of their pre-hiring background check. When you’re running a would-be employee’s credit, make sure to pinpoint what kind of financial history would constitute a red flag for the specific job position. For one example, a history of unpaid debts would make you question a prospect’s qualifications for a financial management position.

It is important to note that some states regulate the use of credit information for certain hiring decisions. However, most states do allow you to run credit checks for managerial positions and those where an employee will handle company finances. It’s imperative to ensure that you comply with any relevant state laws, federal anti-discrimination laws, and the Fair Credit Reporting Act—a national statute that regulates access to consumer information.

2. Criminal History

Many employers conduct criminal background checks on potential candidates to uncover past legal charges or convictions. According to the Sentencing Project, up to one in three Americans have a criminal record, and communities of color are disproportionately affected in the justice system.

As an employer, think carefully about what kind of criminal history would be a dealbreaker for the position you’re trying to fill. For example, a conviction for a violent felony could be grounds to disqualify someone from a caregiver role (or for any role where other people’s safety may be an issue). If you’re unclear on what factors to consider when looking into someone’s criminal background, follow the guidelines set by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which gives guidance according to:

  1. The nature and seriousness of the offense/crime
  2. How much time has passed since the offense or completion of the sentence
  3. The nature of the position

Some states restrict how you can use criminal history in hiring decisions, so check all of the applicable employment laws. We also suggest combing through the EEOC website for more detailed information about criminal background checks and anti-discrimination laws.

3. Concerning Social Media Content

In the age of online platforms, it’s no surprise that employers often scour a person’s social media presence, looking for inappropriate interpersonal behavior, infidelity, or substance abuse. Services like US Search are helpful in conducting these online social media checks too.

As an employer, you want to make sure you’re using a background check service that complies with the Federal Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). This law holds reporting agencies accountable for the accuracy, fairness, and privacy of the personal information it gathers. Although the law was passed in 1970, it still applies to data collected through the internet, including from social media screenings.

Bear in mind that before performing these types of searches, you need to decide what kind of content would affect job eligibility for a specific role.

» Not sure what’s acceptable when running a background check? Follow these background check best practices.

4. Driving Infractions

If your potential candidate’s job involves driving, the most important place to begin your screening process is with motor vehicle records. Search for a history of traffic violations to ensure you’re placing your company’s assets and reputation in safe hands.

There are many infraction types that could affect job eligibility, from driving under the influence to hit-and-runs. Make up your mind beforehand about which kinds of infractions would disqualify a candidate—and of course, never ignore a driving violation in someone’s history, that could endanger the lives of others in the future.

Background check services like PeopleLooker include explorations into a person’s driving and traffic history. As always, be sure to double-check that the service you use is FCRA-compliant.

5. Sex Crime Convictions

People with certain sex offender transgressions must publicly report information like their photo and address on various federal, state, and local databases.

When it comes to hiring, employment laws vary by state. According to Good Hire, some states, such as California, prohibit employers from using an applicant’s sex offender status as a reason to deny them a job—with certain exceptions like protecting a person at risk.

What do you do if a background check reveals that your candidate is included on a sex offender registry? First, speak to a lawyer who can help you understand how different levels of sex crime laws apply to the applicant, your business, and the safety of others. Second, consider conducting additional types of background checks.

6. False or Stolen Social Security Number

Many employers will trace a social security number (SSN) as part of a pre-employment background check to help verify their candidate’s identity. But this type of background check goes beyond simply confirming that the applicant is who they claim. It can be used to determine if someone is using an alias, where they’ve lived in the past, their actual age, and more.

If your search indicates a candidate is using a false or stolen social security number, this should be cause for concern. Similarly, if they’re using a false name or the information they provide conflicts with what you see in their records, it’s a good idea to do a deeper background check.

Before you reject the candidate for the role, talk to them to ensure the issue isn’t the result of an error. If the candidate has intentionally tried to mislead you, they may be attempting to hide something. Whatever the reason for falsifying their identity, as the employer, you need to consider how such behavior reflects on their character and your business’s reputation.

7. Using an Alias

If a potential candidate applies using a name other than their given name, this may simply be what they’re more comfortable using. However, they may also be trying to cover up their criminal history or lead you off the track of other official records associated with their given name.

Ask your candidate whether they go by any other names. Then conduct a social security trace to dig up any aliases. Make sure you run a background check on each name that the candidate is associated with, leaving no stone unturned.

If you’re concerned about the cost of multiple background checks, check out our research on pricing options.

» This is what a common background check includes.

8. Resume or Interview Misrepresentation

In a study of 400 job applicants conducted by Checkster, 40% reported that they had misrepresented themselves during the hiring process or would do so in the future. That statistic shows why calling references is such a vital part of any background check. You need to confirm that your potential candidate is being honest about their skills, experience, and history.

If any discrepancies arise, discuss them with your candidate. Also, regardless of the severity of the “lie”, take any intentional dishonesty seriously when making your hiring decision.

9. Education Falsifications

In the same Checkster job applicant survey referenced above, nearly 40% of respondents said they would list a degree from a prestigious university on their resume in place of the university they graduated from. To avoid being misled, use FCRA-compliant background checks that include education verification. If discrepancies arise, raise them with your candidate.

Ultimately, it’s up to you as the employer to decide whether an ethical breach such as falsifying education information should cost a potential candidate the job offer.

10. Employment History

The Checkster survey mentioned in the last two points also reveals that 42% of respondents lied about why they had left their previous job. Many claim they left jobs of their own accord when they were actually fired.

Verify your candidate's employment history by using an FCRA-compliant background check service that includes employment verification.

If your employee has lied about their employment background, offer them a chance to explain. Should they be caught in a lie, consider this a major red flag.

Protect Your Company and Your Future

The last thing an employer wants to hear is that a candidate who seems to be an excellent fit has potential red flags on their background check. The best advice for employers is to consider any discrepancies in the context of the candidate’s overall quality and skillset.

There’s no “one-size-fits-all” answer for what to do when red flags come up—but start with having an open conversation with the candidate if such issues arise during the hiring process.

Ultimately, it’s your job as the employer to protect your company, employees, and clients. Any of the red flags above may indicate intentional dishonesty or misrepresentations that could put others at risk. They should be taken seriously.

» Looking to increase workplace safety? Here's how you can run criminal background checks on your employees.

Erin Donaghue - Top10 Writer
Erin Donaghue is a criminal and social justice reporter, with an MA in journalism and over a decade of experience reporting and editing for various news outlets. In addition to Top10.com, Erin's work has been featured in publications such as the Washington Post, USA Today, CBSNews.com, and Huffington Post.

Note: Some or all background search services featured on this site are not subject to the Fair Credit Reporting Act, 15 USC 1681 et seq., ("FCRA") In order to make decisions about consumer credit, employment, insurance, tenant screening, or any other purpose that would require FCRA compliance, make sure you choose the appropriate service for you. Be advised that only consumer reporting agencies may provide consumer reports. This is applicable, but not limited to, a background search, credit background check, criminal background check, and/or driving record.