How Far Back Do Background Checks Go?

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Posted by: David Garcia

Topics: Background Check 101, Human Resources

Conducting a background check before hiring an employee is a must. Recruiting professionals can use background checks to solidify their hiring decisions. The more information they have on a candidate, the better hiring decision they can make. 

Typically, the industry-wide standard is to run a search that goes back seven years. However, sometimes a longer time frame is required depending on the type of screening or the job position. 

Employers will decide how far back to run the background check while keeping in mind federal and state laws governing these searches. These records go over criminal records, employment history, credit scores, and more. 

Read on to learn how far back a background check goes according to the type of search you need to conduct and the state requirements. 

How Far Back Do Different Types of Background Checks Go? 

In general, how far back a background search goes depends on the type of vetting. In most cases, you can expect the 7-year rule to apply. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) 7-year rule requires removing some criminal record information from an individual's history after seven years.

However, there are exceptions to this rule. Let's look at different types of background checks and the restrictions surrounding them. 

Identity Verification 

An identity verification background check proves the candidate is who they say they are. It has general implications for hiring purposes, but it also has deeper applicability for vetting candidates for positions that need to protect against identity theft, such as jobs requiring security clearance.

This verification searches through extensive databases, including the Department of Homeland Security and Social Security Administration records. 

An identity background check will show whether the social security number is valid and if it belongs to the person applying for the job. If this social security number has entered the system in the past, this information will also come up. Identity verification can also verify an address. 

Pre-employment background checks typically include identity verification and go back as far as seven years. However, they may go back further depending on the compliance laws of the state and the search type. 

Most employers won't need to go beyond seven years for an identity verification check. If there's a red flag, it's likely to come up within this time frame. 

Criminal Records

It's possible to acquire criminal record details for an individual that goes back decades. There aren't any federal limits on how far back reporting of criminal convictions can go. 

While you can go through someone's lifetime of activity, employers may choose not to go back further than seven years. Why? Well, it doesn't always make sense to base a hiring decision on what the person did decades ago. 

Suppose a person faced a misdemeanor charge twenty years ago but has been on exemplary behavior ever since. If there's been an ongoing pattern of criminal activity, it would likely be persistent in the past seven years.

Also, some states limit how far back a criminal background check can go. Companies in these states need to comply with state laws rather than federal guidelines. The following states don't allow criminal background checks to go back further than seven years: 

  • Colorado
  • California
  • Massachusetts
  • Montana
  • Maryland
  • Kansas
  • New Hampshire
  • New York
  • New Mexico
  • Washington

Depending on the state, the seven-year limit starts from the date of disposition, prison release, or conclusion of parole.

Credit Reports

Not all employers check credit reports; however, they have the option to do so if desired. 

Credit checks are helpful in job positions where the individual will hold financial responsibility, like banks, credit unions, brokerage firms, and mortgage companies, among other financial institutions. 

Credit reports are also necessary for security clearance positions to ensure the candidate is not a bribery risk.

Credit scores are not part of pre-employment credit history reports. Items that will be in the credit report include: 

  • Bankruptcies
  • Accounts in collection
  • Tax liens
  • Civil suits

The Fair Credit Reporting Act states that credit history checks can go back a maximum of seven years. However, there are a few exceptions to this rule. 

For instance, bankruptcies can appear in credit history for up to ten years. The FCRA doesn't allow any bankruptcies older than ten years to appear in an employee background check.

This information helps validate an applicant's financial integrity and trustworthiness. However, unless the individual is applying for a job position that handles money or finances or requires security clearance, most employers don't bother running a credit report check. 

Employment History

Employers can verify a candidate's employment history as far back as they wish. However, in many cases, it doesn't make sense to spend weeks trying to get in touch with a verification source for a job the applicant had ten years ago. 

Consider verifying employment history seven years back. Sometimes a candidate has had three jobs in the past seven years, while others have only had one. It makes sense to verify all employment during these seven years in both situations. The screening duration ensures the applicant was honest about the jobs they said they held. 

Sometimes employers will go past the seven years when it comes to previous employers. Let's say the applicant has had a long break in between jobs. Perhaps they took time off to raise a family or travel. If this is the case, you may want to go further than seven years to make an informed hiring decision. 

How far back employment history checks go is entirely up to the employer or recruiter. 

Education Verification 

While you wouldn't expect a candidate to lie about their education history, it's always a good idea to double-check they attended the university or college they claim they did.

The screening is especially useful for positions hiring international candidates. The education verification can be specific to national institutions but can also expand to include verifying degrees, credentials, and transcripts from foreign universities.

Driving Record Check (MVR Reports)

Driving records, also known as motor vehicle records (MVR), show an individual's driving history. Employers will run a driving record check if the applicant is applying for a job that requires driving a motor vehicle. Such positions include but aren't limited to delivery drivers, bus drivers, ambulance drivers, freight drivers, and certain jobs in the construction industry. 

MVR reports include the following information: 

  • Important driving history information
  • Any moving or nonmoving violations 
  • Citations caused by an accident
  • Driving restrictions 
  • License suspensions 

How far back these background checks go varies depending on the state. They can look back as little as three years or as much as ten. 

How Far Back Do Criminal Background Checks Go?

As mentioned, the FCRA has strict rules regarding how far criminal background checks go. Employers have to comply with these rules when running a pre-employment check. The exact length depends on your state, compliance laws, and the search type.

Typically, misdemeanors are listed indefinitely or restricted to 5, 7, or 10 years. Criminal felonies may also stay on a person’s record indefinitely. However, they may be limited to 7 or 10 years, depending on the state.

What States Follow the 7-Year Rule for Background Checks?

Several states follow the 7-year rule for background checks. These include: 

  • California
  • Colorado
  • Massachusetts
  • Montana
  • Maryland
  • Kansas
  • New Hampshire
  • New York
  • New Mexico
  • Washington

Some states consider income and lift the 7-year restriction if the applicant applies for a particular pay grade. For example, Kansas and Maryland restrict background checks to 7 years unless the individual's annual salary will be equal to or greater than $20,000.

What Does a Pre-Employment Background Check Reveal?

Employers must take pre-employment background checks seriously as they cover personal information on the applicant. These searches reveal many things, among them: 

  • Identity verification
  • Employment verification
  • Education verification
  • Credit history
  • Driving history
  • Criminal records

All of this information helps recruiters make informed hiring decisions. According to a 2017 survey, 74% of employers shared that they've hired the wrong person for a position, which ends up being costly for the company’s productivity, team workload, and employment costs. Such adverse impacts are avoidable if organizations take more time to vet the candidate.

How Far Back Should Employers Look?

Employers should look back seven years unless the job position works with at-risk or vulnerable populations or requires handling sensitive information such as finances or security clearance positions. Regardless of how far back the check goes, they must follow the rules and regulations put forward by the FCRA. 

Why Are Background Checks So Important? 

Hiring is one of the most important decisions a manager makes. Running a background check on a potential hire can make a big difference in hiring a candidate that's a great asset or one that will cost the business money.

The U.S. Department of Labor shares that hiring the wrong person can cost at least 30% of the individual's first-year earnings. Expenses to consider include: 

  • Expenses associated with onboarding and training
  • Hours spent reviewing resumes
  • Time spent interviewing candidates
  • Impact on team morale
  • Increased risk of legal fees from unlawful termination claims

Therefore, background checks are essential because they help distinguish between a candidate who will likely be a great fit and a recruit who won't do so well. 

Final Thoughts

The recommended time for criminal records, credit reports, or employment history is seven years. The timeframe will vary depending on state and federal laws. And sometimes, it just makes sense to go further back. 

For specific guidance on how far back you should go, it's wise to work with a background screening service like ScoutLogic. We'll help you devise a strategy that works for you and makes sense for your company. This way, you won't waste time conducting unnecessary background screenings.

Get in touch with us today!

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