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In general, a "clean" criminal background check means there were no significant felonies or misdemeanors detected. Typically, though, companies are most concerned with convictions that have a direct impact on the job in question.
Importance of a Clean Record
Despite some federal and state laws that protect the rights of ex-convicts, some companies disregard applicants who don't have a completely clean record, according to NPR. If an employer rules out someone with a record, there is little the applicant can do aside from taking legal action. Another key is whether anything comes up in the background check that doesn't align with the application. For some employers, the real issue is whether the applicant has a broader or more concerning legal record than he reported on the application.
It is generally illegal for a company to just reject anyone with a record, reports NPR. Instead, the employer is supposed to only consider criminal convictions that may affect job performance. Someone with a history of driving convictions, for instance, may reasonably be ruled out for a trucking job. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission advises employers to recognize laws regarding employment discrimination, such as Title VII. Additional state laws may restrict employers from using convictions beyond a certain date limitation in a hiring decision.