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What Shows Up on a Pre-Employment Background Check?

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Pre-employment background checks can range from verification of Social Security number and citizenship status to a detailed investigation of a person's financial, legal and personal history. Besides a credit check, this can include employment history, driving record, character references and educational history--much of which is public record--and even social networking activity on MySpace and Facebook. However, employers must first obtain the applicant's consent, and are prohibited from checking medical and criminal history.

Credit Reports and Bankruptcies

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The Fair Credit Reporting Act requires employers to get written consent before obtaining an applicant's credit report. It also requires the employer to provide a copy of the report and how to challenge it if that information is used to deny a job or promotion.

Some states have stricter limits on what a credit report contains, but the federal law (Section 605 b) prohibits including bankruptcies more than 10 years old, plus civil judgments, tax liens and accounts sent to collections more than seven years old. These restrictions don't apply to jobs paying more than $75,000 a year.

Contact the local field office of U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or the equivalent state agency for specific information about your state's employment laws.

Criminal Records

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse notes that federal law allows reporting of criminal convictions for a lifetime, instead of seven years, but many states have adopted a seven-year limit. Police arrest records usually can't be used for a background check, but court records of convictions can be used.

California allows the health care industry to check on sex-related or drug-related arrests if relevant to the position. Law enforcement organizations, public utilities, child care centers and security companies also can access this information in that state. Generally, only public utilities, law enforcement organizations, security guard firms and child care facilities can access this information.

Medical Records

The U.S. Department of Labor notes the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits medical exams and disability-related questions before a job is offered. A physical is allowed after a job offer is made, but must be standard for all similar employees and kept separate from personnel records.

Pre-employment drug tests aren't considered a medical test and so are allowed by federal law, but asking about drug addiction or prior psychiatric consultation is not. ADA allows employers to ask about prior job duties and the ability to perform specific functions, but prohibits requesting a person's medical records.

Education History

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, along with similar state laws, prohibits release of school transcripts without consent. However, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse notes that schools may release a former student's name, address, dates of attendance and degrees earned unless the former student tells the school not to do so. Many universities and colleges have "degree verification" sections on their websites.

Social Networking Sites

The growth of social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook have created a new source of information for employers about potential employees. An October 2007 survey by the job search and career management company Vault found 44 percent of employers used those sites to research potential employees. A 2009 survey by found that 45 percent of employers used those sites to check on applicants.

Military Service Records

The military may release a person's name, rank, awards, duty assignments, duty status and salary without consent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Other military records can be released only under limited circumstances and usually with the person's consent or through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Workers Compensation Records

Appeals of worker's compensation claim denials are public record and can be used by employers to question the applicant's ability to perform certain job duties, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. However, ADA prohibits using medical information or the mere filing of a worker's compensation claim against an applicant.