background check red flags

Understanding the answer to ‘what does a background check look for’ is essential to being prepared ahead of time for employer interviews. This guide includes everything that a background check looks for in every state in the U.S.

Knowing what shows up on a background check, including character references, educational past, and work experience, are all helpful to be ready for the application and interview process, but these instances can be more or less important, depending on the job.

However, identifying these 10 red flags that will make a potential employer choose someone else can be particularly helpful, because many of them can be removed quickly and easily.

What Do Employers Look For In A Background Check? (What Causes A Red Flag On A Background Check?)

What does a background check look for?

Although there are some gray areas in terms of what makes a candidate viable for a position, when it comes to what comes up on a background check, there are certain “no’s” that automatically take a person out of the running.

Keep in mind that a level 1 background check and a level 2 background check will show different results–it’s important to know what type of check is being used.

Here’s what can cause a red flag on a background check in order of severity.

Red Flag #1: Criminal History (Job Background Check)

Arguably the most severe red flag during a background check is a person’s criminal history.1

If a person has an outstanding charge, recent arrest, conviction (including arrests without conviction), pending charges or pending court case, this can bring into question their decision-making, character, and morals. Unfortunately, even dismissed charges can show up on a background check.

Furthermore, even when a person may have been falsely convicted or arrested, criminal records can only be removed (expunged) from a person’s record through legal counsel and filing motions which are often lengthy and sometimes expensive.

A candidate’s criminal record is a huge stand-out to employers. If employers are debating between two candidates for a job position, and one has a criminal record, it can significantly influence their decision to hire the person without the record. After all, employers need their employees to be reliable, honest, and upstanding citizens who will create a safe workplace for other workers and customers.

Screening candidates ahead of time with a background check provides employers with the knowledge required to make their decision. Keep in mind that when wondering can a juvenile record can be used against you, juvenile records are almost always sealed and not reported on a background check.

Although criminal history is the number one red flag on a background check, employers still need to treat every candidate’s failure with an unbiased point of view to find the best person for the job. Applicants should be ready to explain any criminal charges to their future employer to create an open and honest working relationship.

Red Flag #2: False Credentials

The second red flag on a background check is providing false credentials. In fact, it’s a common reason social security background checks are used.

Any individual who will lie regarding their identity, experience, and past may not be trustworthy. In this case, an employer will usually notice this red flag and issue a failed background check after job offer.

Putting false information on a job application or lying in an interview, whether it is about past education, criminal history, identity, or experience, are all red flags to the interviewee or employer.

Applicants for job openings should keep in mind that background checks examine education and employment history. Therefore, lying on either one of these topics can immediately disqualify a person from a job opening. An applicant may lie about their college GPA, college courses, graduating degree, or past work experience — however, these are easy to check using education background checks and employment background checks.

Red Flag #3: Bad References

A person’s references are important. Not only do references tell the employer about the person’s character, personality, and experience, but they can be the difference-maker between the employer seeing just statistics on a sheet and actually seeing the person as a real human being.

However, if a person has poor references, this is a red flag for employers. A person who listed references on their resume, and then had these said references speak poorly of them, used poor judgment to choose them as the people they would trust. Furthermore, poor references show a lack of ambition, work ethic, and moral judgment that characterize an ideal employee. .

If past employers, teachers, and references provide negative feedback to the potential future employer, this can show the person in question is not a good hire.

Applicants for a job position who are undergoing a background check should consider reaching out to past references to speak with them about their work or education history. Not only can this clear up some inconsistencies, but it can alert the applicant about an employer or past reference who may be holding a grudge for a personal reason.

Red Flag #4: Failed Drug Test

Does a background check include a drug test? Sometimes.

Many times a failed drug test is an automatic dismissal of a candidate. Although there are varying levels of severity involved in recreational drug use, such as using medicinal marijuana vs. a heroin addiction, any failed drug tests are red flags to future employers.

Many companies have strict rules against using drugs while employed or while on the job, and these policies can dictate insurance rates and coverage.

In addition to possibly breaking the law by using illegal drugs, employees who fail a drug test may put others in the workplace at risk. If someone is under the influence at work, this could compromise the health and safety of the other workers and patrons.

Applicants who use prescription drugs should consider telling their employer ahead of time, so they know about the potential of a positive on a drug test. Although it is not required to disclose medical information to the employer, it can be helpful to avoid any inconsistencies and miscommunications.

Red Flag #5: Poor Credit History

Another red flag that can indicate an untrustworthy or unreliable person to a future employer is poor credit history. Individuals can have poor credit history from borrowing too much money, applying for too many loans, applying for multiple credit lines, having a short credit history, or not paying the minimum (or missing payments) on their credit card bills.

Although none of these may seem like a huge financial red flag, a credit history background check is used for certain professionals and positions of trust. For example, a tech professional in the banking industry may have their credit checked to ensure that there are no potential dangers to a system they design.

If an applicant is nervous about their credit history on their background check, they can speak with the employer ahead of time to explain it. Addressing the issue up front can demonstrate a change in financial maturity and responsibility.

Red Flag #6: Refusing A Background Check

The next red flag for employers is if an applicant refuses to consent to a background check.2 If a person is applying for a job, they should consent to a background check if they want to have any shot at getting the open position. Refusal to consent to a background check can indicate a lack of integrity, trustworthiness, and openness.

Red Flag #7: Job-Relevant Convictions

A criminal conviction may not be the end of the world for a person, but it can influence how an employer may look at their job readiness in the future.

For example, if a person was charged with endangering a child and they apply to work in a child care facility, this can cause them to not pass the background check, which is required by state law. The same is true for a caregiver background check.

Red Flag #8: Inconsistencies In Work Experience Or Education

Just like providing false credentials during the application process, individuals who have inconsistencies in their education or work experience can trigger a red flag.

Employers perform due diligence checks on the past of each applicant to fill in any missing gaps in terms of education, jobs, or internships. If a candidate has a one or two-year gap or question in their education or work history, employers should ask the candidate to see if it was because of a mental health break, gap year, holiday, or other reason.

Red Flag #9: Multiple Short-Term Jobs

A background check can find someone’s employment history (where someone works or has worked in the past).

Candidates who have multiple jobs in a short time period may be a poor worker, unreliable, or hard to cooperate within the workplace.

Multiple jobs in a short amount of time can be a red flag for employers, for a  few reasons, but mainly that a person would be a high cost risk.

The hiring  and training process for any company is costly. And most companies do not want to invest time in an employee who will leave the position after a few weeks.

Red Flag #10: Unemployment


Long periods of unemployment isn’t always a red flag on a background check. If there is a reasonable explanation. For example, some parents take extended leave of work to help raise their infant children. Or, a medical condition may force someone to undergo treatment long term.

Most potential employers won’t worry about long work absences if the explanation is provided during the interview.

What Does A Background Check For Employment Look For? (What’s on a Background Check-Name Only)

Individuals who are curious about the pre employment background check and what shows up on it should recognize the difference between a name0based (level 1) check and a fingerprint background check.

A background check for employment will look for specific aspects about the potential candidate to determine if they are the right fit for the open position. Understanding what shows up on a background check can help applicants prepare ahead of time and be ready for any future interview processes.

The information on a background check will depend on what type of search is required by the employer. There are various sources of information to utilize for a background check, with each resource and database ranging in terms of detailed past history.

A name-based background check will compare the identity information provided by the applicant to criminal records to see if they are in the system. In addition, this search will find the person’s name, date of birth, social security number, and other identifiers to determine if they have any county, state criminal record.3

Sometimes, the name based search will also be used to conduct a national sex offender registry check.

Name-based searches are usually conducted by local law enforcement agencies, but can be performed by professional background check agencies that are accredited for use for employment background checks.4

Within this check, the employer will use this identifying information to see the applicant’s education history, professional past, and driving record.

Using a name-based background check is less time-consuming than a fingerprint-based background check, so this can be helpful for applicants or employers who wish to fill an open position immediately.

The other common type of background check is a fingerprint background check. A fingerprint background check is a type of background informational search that uses national databases to find a person’s criminal record, basic identifying information, employment history, and police reports.5

Knowing what comes up on a background check for international searches can help citizens get employment out of the U.S.

  • Employment History — A fingerprint search can verify a person’s employment history and provide contact information.
  • Education — The fingerprint search will return educational history and past professional licenses to see if the applicant is qualified for the job at hand. This information includes transcripts, degrees, courses, and grades earned.
  • Criminal Record — A Fingerprint search returns a person’s criminal records, although employers can create a custom time frame for the retroactive search date (ex: some employers only look back ten years).
  • Driving Record — The motor vehicle record is included in the fingerprint search to identify any red flags, such as multiple speeding tickets or motor-vehicle-related crimes.6

What Does A Background Check Look For In All 50 States

What does a background check look for? Understanding what a background check looks for in all 50 states can provide applicants with the information required to prepare for an interview and the applicant process ahead of time 7.

After all, being prepared for what an employer may ask about past history can be helpful with answering any questions related to discrepancies or inconsistencies in a background check.

Individuals should learn about what is included in background checks to be best prepared during an interview process with a potential future employer. By understanding the answer to ‘what does a background check look for,’ applicants can be prepped ahead of time to eliminate any red flags from their check and answer questions truthfully.

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