The industry-wide norm is to conduct a background search for the last seven years. Depending on what is searched, a longer time frame may be both allowable by law and advisable based on the circumstances of the company or position. Deciding what makes the most sense isn’t always clear-cut for employers. On one hand, it’s logical to want a complete picture of a person’s background. On the other hand, depending on the circumstances, an act committed decades ago may not be terribly relevant to their candidacy for hire now.

When deciding how far back to go with background searches, it’s also important to recognize the federal and state laws governing these activities. Here are some key areas to consider regarding how far back to go when conducting background searches.

Criminal Records

There are no federal limits on how far back a search for criminal convictions can go, so it is possible to conduct a criminal record search for an individual that goes back decades.

Though federal law makes it possible to search a lifetime of activity, there are reasons why companies may not want to go back further than the industry norm of seven years. A key reason is that it may not make sense to make a hiring decision now based on an act committed decades ago, particularly if it was a low-level misdemeanor and there has not been a pattern of criminal actions.

In addition, some states have set limits on how far back criminal record checks can go. When hiring individuals in those states, companies must comply with state rather than federal limits. The following states limit the reporting of a conviction to seven years from the date of disposition, conclusion of parole, or prison release: California, Colorado, Kansas, Massachusetts, Maryland, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, and Washington state. Each of those states also has various income restrictions. Some states lift the restrictions if the applicant is expected to earn a certain salary. 

Credit Reports

Though not all employers check credit reports, many do. Credit reports can be particularly helpful for roles in which individuals will hold some kind of financial or fiduciary responsibility, such as in financial institutions. Some of the items that can be included in a credit report include bankruptcies, tax liens, accounts in collection, and civil suits or judgments. Credit scores are not included in pre-employment credit history reports.

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) has clear guidelines for conducting credit history checks and how far back screening can go.  In most cases, screening can go back a maximum of seven years, but there are some exceptions to that rule. For example, previous bankruptcies can be reported up to 10 years back.

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Employment History

Checking employment history requires careful consideration about how useful the information will be to the current hiring decision—this is why it’s vital to have a background screening partner that has a proven, effective and efficient process. The time it takes to conduct the search is also a factor. It’s important to balance the time it will take to track down verification sources and references with the need to get the most accurate picture of a candidate’s employment history. For example, it may be important to understand an individual’s employment history from more than 10 years ago, but not if it takes weeks to connect with a verification source or the person being interviewed for a reference can’t remember many details from that far back.

Determining how far to go back when checking employment history is also a matter of how many employers a person has had over time. While one candidate may have had three previous employers in the last seven years, another candidate may have had only one. In both cases, it makes sense to verify all employment during that time frame. In other cases—for example, if a candidate has had a years-long break in employment—it will make sense to conduct employment history verifications beyond seven, or even 10, years.

How Far Back? Consider Relevance and Timing

For criminal records and credit reports, seven years is the recommended time frame to look back on an individual’s background. For employment history, the recommendation is to go back a minimum of seven years, longer in cases in which there is a gap in employment or an individual has changed careers or industries. Whether you’re checking criminal records, employment, or educational history, it may take a bit longer to conduct a search if you’re going much further back than seven years. However, if the employee is in a particular role, that time is worth the investment. 

It’s also important to consider the relevance of a finding on a person’s criminal record beyond seven years. There are federal and state laws governing how far back you can go, but there is also the question of how far back you should go and the degree to which certain findings should impact a hiring decision. For specific guidance relevant to your organization and industry, it’s a good idea to work with your background screening partner to devise a strategy for how far back it makes sense to go when conducting background screening activities in your organization.


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