Last updated: September 25, 2023
“Exactly how far back does a background check go anyway?”
Imagine being an interviewer and being asked that question just as you were explaining company policies regarding pre-hire background screenings and pre-employment drug tests. Be honest now—would you wonder if the applicant had something to hide?
Actually, there are no federal regulations in place regarding how far background checks look back. If the company policy doesn’t stipulate a specific time period, they normally opt for “the norm.” The look-back period varies depending on the type of background check being performed and the location of the individual in question.
The type of records being investigated is the main variable that impacts the look-back period. State laws vary to large degrees in regard to privacy rights. It’s wise to consult with an attorney regarding the laws in your state before adding background checks to your vetting process.
Let’s take a look at some typical background screenings and the restrictions regarding how far employers can look-back.
Pre-employment background checks
Commonly, employers look-back seven years for employment-related criminal background checks. Some states allow a ten-year period of time and others don’t have time limitations at all. However, there are apt to be subtle differences in legislation, such as, whether or not the person was convicted and sentenced or has completed their sentence.
Level 2 check
Unless you operate your business in Florida, a Level 2 check probably refers to a background check provider’s service tier level. Some provide customers with a range of services and adjust their rates accordingly.
The state of Florida, though, separates background screenings into two levels. A Level 1 is a basic background screening and can consist of any of the following, or a combination thereof:
- name-based criminal search
- an employment history verification
- additional local county criminal searches
- or checking the sex offender registry
A Level 2 screening is more thorough and requires the individual to be fingerprinted. They are run through local county courthouses and law enforcement agencies, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement records, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) databases.
There are no laws limiting the length of time in which an employer can look back regarding Level 2 screenings. However, the state abides by national laws that impose a seven-year rule in regard to arrests.
Employers that check credit history are typically allowed to go back seven years. Some states allow a ten-year look-back period, typically related to high-level jobs involving management positions or the handling of finances.
Pay attention to the laws in your state in regard to checking credit history, though. There’s been a push, of late, toward banning or restricting an employer from requiring credit history reports. In fact, eleven states and the District of Columbia (DC) have laws in place restricting employment-related credit checks.
Moreover, several large cities, including New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, passed similar laws this year.
Checking driving records
The variance among states in regard to driving record checks is the most notable. The range spreads from three years to as much as a decade.
Minor infractions and misdemeanors
Some jurisdictions limit the lookback period depending on the severity of a crime. For instance, some states allow employers to access felony convictions indefinitely. Others restrict this information to a period ranging between seven and ten years.
The only type of background check that is essentially limitless would be verification checks. The reason is that it makes no sense to limit the amount of time that a potential employer can verify someone’s educational credentials, for instance.
That concept applies to employment history and professional licenses obtained as well. Subsequently, these types of background checks can span a candidate’s entire lifetime.
Employers should be aware of whether or not their state’s look-back restrictions even pertain to a specific length of time. Many states prohibit employers from considering non-conviction arrests. Why? Because an arrest without a conviction isn’t considered an indicator of guilt. Therefore, an arrest without a conviction isn’t viewed as an indicator of guilt to be used as a disqualifying factor.
Arizona, California, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin ban employers from considering any arrest records at all. Meanwhile, Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey, Washington, and Texas prohibit employers from using arrest records to aid the decision-making process in certain situations.
Background checks are becoming more widely used as part of the employee vetting process. Taking the time to discover what the laws are in your state before you begin background screening is a wise decision because laws can vary widely from state to state.