Idealist logoidealist


pin icon
pin icon
Post a Listing
circle-add icon
Add Your Organization


Idealist logoidealist
Land Your Dream Job
Careers that help you move from intention to action
Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Background Checks | What to Expect and How to Prepare

Lakshmi Hutchinson profile image

Lakshmi Hutchinson

woman next to a sign that says "check this out"

Background checks have become increasingly common in the hiring process. According to a 2017 survey by, 96% of employers conduct at least one type employment background screening—and in many cases, the screening process involves more than just a criminal record check. But while the background check process may seem opaque, there’s a lot you can do to make it quicker and simpler for both your new employer and yourself. 

What does a background check consist of?

Many organizations outsource their pre-employment screenings (and volunteer screenings) to third-party companies that specialize in background checks. The employer can choose how in-depth of a background check they want to run. The screening may include: 

  • Criminal and civil record searches. This is the most common type of background check. If your job is with a direct service nonfprofit and you’ll be working with children or vulnerable populations, a thorough criminal background check that includes a search of the National Sex Offender Public Registry is a given. 
  • Employment and education/license verification. The screening agency will attempt to verify your dates of employment for previous jobs that you listed on your resume. They can also verify that university degrees and any professional licenses you have listed are accurate. 
  • DMV records check. If driving is a component of your role, your driving records will likely be a component of the background check as well. 

What can I do to prepare?

You may think that a background check is straightforward and you can just sit back and wait for the results. But that’s not always the case. Here are a few examples of how and why you should prepare for a background check and anticipate any hiccups.  

  • Get your paystubs and W2s/1099s from past positions in order. When a background screening company is verifying your employment, they may not always be able to reach the person they need to at your old job. You may even be asked to provide documented proof of your employment in order to pass the background check. If you have the paperwork ready to go, this can eliminate delays in the hiring process. You can also give your previous workplaces a heads-up that they may be contacted. 
  • If you have concerns about what’s in your public records, obtain copies yourself. You can verify your social security number, check your driving record with the DMV, request court records, and check your credit report. (Depending on what state you reside in, some employers may access your credit report with your consent).
  • Review your social media posts. Although it may not be an official part of your background check, you can be sure that the content on your social media pages will be scrutinized by potential employers. If you want to be certain that your social media presence doesn’t set off any red flags, consider switching your accounts to private (with the exception of professional sites like LinkedIn). If you don’t want to take this step, you can simply ensure that there is nothing potentially offensive or unprofessional posted on your pages. 

What happens if I run into a problem with my background check?

What if you’ve done everything right, but something in your background check is holding up your offer of employment—or worse yet, results in you losing out on a job? It’s important to be proactive and to be aware of your legal rights. 

  • If there are delays in the screening, reach out to your HR contact. The background check company may have flagged something minor that you can work out directly with HR. It could simply be a matter of missing information that you can provide. If it’s not a major issue, you may be able to work around it.
  • Sometimes background checks come up with incorrect information. What happens if you have the same name as someone who has a criminal history, and there’s a mixup in your records? Unfortunately, that can occur. Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), you have the right to a copy of the background check from the company that prepared it. You can dispute inaccuracies and attempt to correct the information in your background check. You can also ask the background check company to doublecheck birthdates and the county/state in the case of criminal record issues.
  • A failed background check doesn’t necessarily mean you lose the job offer. If you failed the check due to information that couldn’t be verified, or you are appealing based on an error in your records, you can discuss your options with the employer. If they really want to hire you, they probably want to get the issues corrected just as much as you do.

Waiting for a background check to be completed can be stressful—but the more prepared and knowledgeable you are about the process and your legal rights, the better the outcome will be.


Have you ever had to correct missing or inaccurate information in your background check? Let us know on Facebook!

Lakshmi Hutchinson profile image

Lakshmi Hutchinson

Lakshmi Hutchinson is a freelance writer with experience in the nonprofit, education, and HR fields. She is particularly interested in issues of educational and workplace equity, and in empowering women to reach their professional goals. She lives in Glendale, California with her husband, twin girls, and tuxedo cat.

Explore Jobs on Idealist