What Is a Background Check?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated November 21, 2022 | Published July 26, 2021

Updated November 21, 2022

Published July 26, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

When going through the application or hiring process for new jobs, prospective employers may ask you to complete a background check. Background checks help the employer determine more about you and your experience. There are many types of background checks, and knowing more about each can help you prepare for what information you need to disclose. In this article, we discuss what a background check is, what you can expect from one, and explain how you can prepare.

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What is a background check?

A background check is when someone inspects an individual's private and public records. Employers perform background checks to ensure candidates are being honest in their resumes and application. If you want to work with vulnerable sectors, such as children, employers use background checks to ensure they can trust you to take care of vulnerable people properly.

Employers must be reasonable when performing background checks. This means an employer legally can't ask you for private information that doesn't pertain to the job. For example, your driving records may be necessary as a truck driver but not as a teacher. So, depending on your role, here are some types of information employers may inspect when performing a background check:

  • Criminal records: Criminal record checks can be national, provincial or territorial. National criminal record checks are through the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) while provincial or territorial ones are through a local court search.

  • Employment history: Employers can contact your previous company's human resource or payroll department to verify your date of employment, reason for leaving, and salary.

  • Reference check: Employers may ask you for a list of professional references, usually at least three, that they can contact to get to know you and your experience better. Think of managers or coworkers you worked well with in the past that you know can give a detailed, positive reference about you.

  • Work authorization: Employers may ask for proof of your citizenship status or a work visa to ensure you're legally eligible to work in Canada.

  • Credit history: This type of background check is not as common but some employers may check your credit report or credit score or ask you to provide a recent copy of it. Your credit history can tell employers more about your identity, background, and reliability.

  • Education history: Employers may contact your high school, college or university to confirm that you attended, the date you graduated, your course of study, the degree or diploma obtained, and your GPA. An education background check also ensures you have the necessary certification or professional license for the role.

  • Social media profiles: If your social media profiles are public, employers may look through your posts or pictures to learn more about you. They can't access private information on your social media without your permission, and you're not legally required to do so.

  • Driving record: If your job requires you to drive, such as delivery or truck driver, employers access your driving record through a driver's license office. They do this to ensure you have a valid license and no claims against it.

  • Medical records: Employers legally cannot deny you a job due to your medical conditions, but they may ask for some medical information depending on your role. For example, if you need adjustments because of a disability or medical condition, you may need to provide a doctor's note.

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What to expect from a background check

Depending on the type of background check employers plan to perform, they may need your social insurance number, full name, date of birth, and address. To obtain this information and perform a background check on your private information, they legally need your permission. According to the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), employers must have you fill out a consent form before they begin a private background check.

Employers must also tell you what information they're looking for, who they're sharing it with, and why they're collecting it. These laws only pertain to private information, such as your criminal or medical records. Employers can check the information that is publicly available, such as your social media profiles, without informing you. Privacy laws about background checks vary depending on your province or territory, so it's important you know what your rights are in your location.

How to prepare for a background check

When applying for jobs and going through the application process, follow these steps to prepare for a background check:

1. Clean up your social media profiles and check your privacy settings

As prospective employers don't need to ask for your permission to go through your social media and clean up your profiles before applying for jobs. Start by checking your privacy settings to see what information is public and consider making your accounts private to restrict access. If certain aspects remain public, such as your pictures or posts, delete or hide content that employers may see as unprofessional. If your job requires public social media accounts, such as a digital marketer, consider creating a professional, polished version of your profile.

2. Keep detailed records of your academic history and past employment

To ensure you're always prepared for potential background checks, keep detailed records of your academic history and past employment. Retain paper or digital copies of any important information you receive, such as your academic transcripts, diploma or degrees, pay stubs, or work contracts.

When filling out applications, employers may also ask for references from your previous role. So, keep the contact information of your past employers on hand to fill out these applications accurately. Employers typically want to talk to your supervisor or manager, so choose someone with whom you have a positive and healthy professional relationship.

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3. Get copies of your records

To know what employers are seeing when they look through your private and public records, get a copy of these records yourself. Many financial service companies or even the financial institution you bank with can provide credit reports for free or at a small charge. This shows your credit score and your history of borrowing money and paying it back. If your credit score is low, try to increase it by paying off your loans on time. When improving your credit score, aim for a number above 700.

You can also look into your driving record, but you should already know about any accidents or claims made against your license. For a fee, you can even complete a full background check on yourself. This gives you more information about what prospective employers can see, and you can check for potential errors.

4. Notify your references

If employers ask for your reference list, they may call or email them to learn more about you and your experience. It's best to ask at least three people to be your reference beforehand and alert them when they can expect to receive a call or email so they can prepare. This also gives you the opportunity to remind your references about any skills or achievements you want to highlight.

Your references may have to fill out a questionnaire or speak to your prospective employer on the phone. As this can be time-consuming, ensure you find references that can give a detailed, positive response to increasing your chances of getting the job.

Related: How To Write a Resume Reference List (With Examples)

5. Be honest

If an employer is performing a background check, they have access to information about you. If you know something negative may show in your background checks, such as a criminal charge or a poor credit score, address it with your potential employer right away. It's better for prospective employers hear about your background from you, rather than the background check. This shows employers you're trustworthy and passionate about honesty and improvement.

Similarly, be honest about your educational background and experience. If you tell employers you worked for your previous company for eight years, and they call your reference who says you only worked there for two, they likely won't hire you. Companies want employees with integrity that they can trust to work effectively, so always be honest when applying for jobs. Having an open and honest conversation with your potential employers is essential to building a healthy professional relationship and landing a new job.

Related: Key Steps To Asking for a Reference

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