Background Checks

While an employer may have reasons for wanting to do a background check, as a potential employee, you also have rights and an expectation of privacyFor many types of information, an employer needs to get your written permission before they can get information about youOnce an employer has information about you, they must inform you if they take any adverse action against you because of that information. Additionally, an employer cannot use any of the information in a discriminatory manner. For more information about your rights concerning background checks, read below:

While the laws vary between states, it is legal for employers to inquire about an applicant’s background; however, there are certain restrictions on questions about medical and genetic information. Additionally, employers are prohibited from using the information obtained in ways that deny equal employment opportunity to anyone on a protected basis, by intent or by unlawful disparate impact. Some of the most common information an employer checks is:

  • Credit history
  • Driving record
  • Criminal record
  • Court records
  • References
  • Drug tests
  • Past employers
  • Sex offender lists
  • School records
  • Medical records

For a lot of information, like your school transcripts, medical records, or military service records, your employer needs permission first. An employer also needs your permission if they use an outside agency to gather any background information. If an employer gets your background report without your permission, you can contact the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

However, employers can find out a lot about you without needing your permission just by typing your name into Google. When applying for a job, make sure to Google yourself so you know what shows up and can attempt to fix any wrong or unfortunate information.

The main federal law is the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). This law is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FCRA regulates outside reporting agencies and consumer reporting agencies. If an employer wants a background check from a consumer reporting agency, then special rules apply. Before getting the report, the employer needs your written permission. If an employer then takes any adverse action against you because of the report, like refusing to hire you or firing you, you are entitled to a copy of the background check used and a copy of “A Summary of Your Rights Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act,” as well as an opportunity to respond to the allegations and correct any incorrect information.

Yes, you can get your credit report whenever you want, but you may have to pay for it. However, you can get the information for free if:

  • a person has taken adverse action against you because of information in your credit report;
  • you are the victim of identity theft and place a fraud alert in your file;
  • your file contains inaccurate information because of fraud;
  • you are on public assistance; or
  • you are unemployed but expect to apply for employment within 60 days.

You are also entitled to one free credit report every 12 months, which you can request at or one of many other credit reporting websites. 

Once you review your credit report, you can dispute any errors with the credit reporting company.

See for more information about credit checks. 

If the information in your credit report is wrong, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which enforces the Fair Credit Reporting Act, suggests you write to the credit reporting company as well as the information provider for the credit reporting company. The FTC has more information and sample dispute letters on the FTC consumer webpage.

As for old information, a credit report company typically cannot report on any negative information that is seven-years-old or older, or ten-years-old or older in the case of bankruptcies.

Maybe not as much as you would expect. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the use of criminal history may sometimes violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. There is also a growing campaign known as Ban the Box that is convincing states to pass laws that push back background checks to later in the hiring process. They also remove the question about past criminal convictions on job applications. See for more information on State Ban the Box laws. 

Like background checks in general, while the laws vary between states, employers generally can perform drug tests, and in some cases are required to do so. However, an employer’s drug testing policies must be written down, accessible to employees, and applied equally to all applicants and employees. See for more information on drug testing. 

An employer could have several reasons to want to view your medical records. One of the most common reasons is when the position requires physical activity. If an employer makes an employment decision based on information about a medical condition, you still can request a chance to demonstrate that you are able to do the job. No matter what the reason, you have rights in this area, including the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA). See for more information on medical privacy. 

You do have a right to privacy. As for whether or not an employer has violated your privacy, courts use a balancing test. First, a court will look at your reasonable expectation of privacy in the area of the background check. For example, you have a higher reasonable expectation of privacy for your medical records than for what you post on social media. Second, a court will look at the reason the employer conducted the background check. Those two are then weighed against each other to determine whether or not an employer has crossed the line.

You do have a right to privacy. If you feel as though your employer has violated your privacy, you should contact a lawyer. See Workplace Fairness’ Attorney Directory to find an employment lawyer. 

In a situation like this, the more relevant law may be discrimination law as opposed to the laws about background checks. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is the federal agency responsible for enforcement in this area. When an employer inquires about your background, the employer must treat you the same as everyone else, regardless of your race, national origin, color, sex, religion, disability, genetic information, or older age. Even if the employer treats you equally, using background information still may be illegal discrimination. See for more information on discrimination. 

See for more information on background check state law. 

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.