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How Employers Screen Applicants 

Employers conduct background checks and pre-employment screening methods to avoid hiring and training new employees who are not suitable for the job. We have listed a few standard background and screening methods, but there are many more techniques available to employers.

Background Check
Criminal Background Check
Credit Report
Standard Screening Tests
Drug Testing


Background Check

For specific jobs, there are federal laws requiring background checks. The information contained in this report or reports will be used to determine if you are eligible for the job. An employment background check may include education verification, review of work history, verification of Social Security number, review of any criminal history, and review of your credit history.

Typically, your criminal history and credit reports are the most requested information. Before employers can do a credit check for hiring purposes, you must give written consent, under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). If a company decides not to hire a candidate on the basis of the credit report, it is required to provide a copy of the report and let the candidate know of his or her right to challenge it.   Employers generally use the Federal Trade Commission Bureau of Consumer Protection as a guide. 

Similarly, considering a candidate's criminal background in making hiring decisions varies from state to state but there are some provisions put in place that will protect your rights.  Read these facts for consumers. If you have a criminal history, it is generally a good idea to disclose things in advance you feel may be an issue when you have an opportunity to discuss them, rather than have the employer be surprised.  If you have someone in your life who has seen your efforts to improve yourself and can speak on your behalf, that person could be a good reference to help validate your change.

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Criminal Background Check

A criminal background check is the process of finding the criminal history of an individual. Criminal background checks are routinely performed before employment is offered, with an offer of employment being conditional upon a clear criminal record. A person's arrest history, incarceration records, and instances of sexual offenses can be found through the performance of criminal background searches.

The presence of a criminal offense on a person's criminal record does not necessarily preclude employment. Certain things will be taken into consideration such as how old you were when you committed the offense, the type and severity of the offense, how many offenses have occurred, and if they were related to employment.

If you are aware of a criminal offense in your history, address it with the potential employer first. Describe the situation and details. Don’t let the employer have to ask about an offense after the fact.

Credit Report

The credit report is now more often included in the background search. This report contains payment history and other credit-related characteristics like bankruptcies or tax liens. The credit report can also contain your previous addresses and employers. This can be used to verify the accuracy of information given in your resume or on the application.

You can request your free annual credit report at AnnualCreditReport.com. This is the federally mandated, official site to help consumers obtain their credit report once every 12 months from each of the nationwide consumer credit reporting companies: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. There is a fee to get your credit score from those companies.

The Federal Trade Commission has received complaints from consumers who thought they were ordering their free annual credit report, and yet couldn't get it without paying fees or buying other services. TV ads, email offers, or online search results may tout "free" credit reports, but AnnualCreditReport.com is the only authorized source for a free credit report.

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Standard Screening Tests

Physical exam: A physical examination should be required only after a job is offered and must be related to the job itself. It is illegal to give a pre-employment physical exam or to ask about disabilities on the application. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) restricts an employer's ability to require medical exams, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has provided employers with guidelines for determining what is considered a medical exam under the Act.

You must always be honest in the application and physical exam process. Never take any non-prescription medication within 48 hours of an examination. Consult with your physician before stopping medication. Be sure to list any and all drugs ingested prior to the physical exam. If you have to take medication on a regular basis and cannot stop taking it before the exam, raise this issue with the potential employer first.

Skills test: A skills test is the most common form of pre-employment testing and can be used to test specific and general skills. The goal of the test is to verify you have the skills you say you do, as well as the skills that are required to do the job.  For example, if you were hired to work a piece of machinery or use a piece of software, you may be asked to demonstrate your knowledge and skill level. If you are being hired in the food services industry, you may be asked about food hygiene, nutrition, and preparation techniques, or to demonstrate your knowledge of food preparation techniques or food storage.

Know what you may be tested on. Look at the job description and identify those skills you need to be successful.  Practice these skills or read up on the topics before going to the test.

Aptitude test: These employment tests explore an applicant's capacity to learn new skills that may be required for a job. They may be used to predict your future performance with a particular job. The test format can be a written exam or an oral one. Sample questions depend largely upon your area of focus – e.g., medical, technical, financial – and are specific to these particular skills.

Integrity test: Integrity testing explores how honest or trustworthy a potential employee may be. The test is designed to ask questions that uncover the applicant’s attitudes about absenteeism, company policies, drug and alcohol abuse, company property such as office supplies, and the use of phones, email and the Internet.

These tests typically ask direct questions about previous experiences related to ethics and integrity or ask questions about preferences and interests from which inferences are drawn about future behavior in these areas. These test results are commonly used for screening applicants for entry-level jobs where employees have access to money or merchandise.

Some sample integrity test questions are:

  • How prompt are you?
  • Do you think it is stealing to take small items home from work? 
  • Do you feel guilty when you do something you should not do?
  • Do you believe most employers take advantage of the people who work for them?
  • How many people have cheated the government on their income tax returns?
  • How often during the week do you go to parties?
  • How many people don’t you like?
  • Are you an optimist?
  • True or false: I like to take chances.
  • True or false: A lot of times, I went against my parents’ wishes.


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Drug Testing

Pre-employment drug testing is just one way employers can help protect their workplaces from the negative effects of alcohol and illegally used substances. It can also discourage alcohol and other drug abusers from joining the organization in the first place.

Usually, job candidates are sent to a collection site where a urine sample is taken and then sent to a certified laboratory for analysis. Urine drug testing is the most common type of drug screening primarily because it is reliable, inexpensive and non- intrusive. Test results are usually available within 24 to 48 hours. There are other testing methods such as hair testing, blood tests, breath tests and saliva testing.

The most common employment drug screening is a standard five-panel test, called a “Five Screen,” which is testing for five types of drugs: Cannabinoids (marijuana, hashish); cocaine (cocaine, crack, benzoylecognine); opiates (heroin, opium, codeine, morphine); amphetamines (amphetamines, methamphetamines, speed); and phencyclidine (PCP, angel dust). Alcohol, LSD, hallucinogens and inhalants can be added to drug screens.

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 Take Action

  1. Know in advance of testing which test you will be taking, when the test will be administered, if and when test results will be available to you, and if there is a fee for testing services that you are expected to pay.
  2. Prepare for skill tests by practicing or studying the skills you need to get the job – typing, blueprint reading, creating spreadsheets, editing, etc.
  3. Search for skills tests available online and use them for extra practice.

 Additional Resources