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In today’s world, security is important. Whether you’re dating someone new, interviewing potential employees or thinking about renting your home to a tenant, there are many reasons to run a background check on someone.

There are two ways to conduct a background check. You can do it yourself using free background check tools or you can pay a third party to conduct the search for you.

You’re probably wondering how to run a free background check, right? That’s one of the many things we’ll cover in this guide. We’ll discuss these issues:

  • What is a background check?
  • What is an employment background check?
  • Why do employers need background checks?
  • Rules for conducting an employee background check
  • Can employers really conduct free background checks?
  • How to run a free background check with DIY tools
  • What should you look for in a third party company?
  • What red flags should an employer look for?

Let’s get started.

What is a background check?

A background check is a collection of public data and private records that provide information on a particular person. More specifically, a background check includes personal information like employment history, credit score, education, criminal records, financial records and verification of identity.

There are many different kinds of background checks, which include:

  • Credit background checks
  • Criminal background checks
  • Tenant screening background checks
  • Employment background checks
  • Fingerprint background checks
  • International background checks
  • Personal background checks
  • Professional licenses background checks
  • Universal background checks

While background checks are used for many reasons, we’ll focus on employment background checks.

What is an employment background check?

When an employer wants to hire a new employee, a background check is typically conducted. The background report provides additional information for managers to make a well-rounded decision.

Do companies really conduct background checks? While many employers tell applicants that they’ll run a background check, do they actually follow through with it? Yes. Research shows 96% of organizations conduct at least some kind of background check on final candidates, according to a survey conducted by the National Association of Professional Background Screeners.

What are employers looking for? The depth of the background check varies. Employee background checks can be as simple as verifying a social security number, or they can be more extensive. The magnitude of an employee background check depends on the employer and the position they are looking to fill.

For example, if an applicant is applying for a financial management position, an employer would want to know if he or she was ever arrested for financial crimes, what his or her own credit report looks like, and whether or not the candidate has confirmed experience in this field.

While the level of information obtained through a background check is customizable, many employers want the following information:

  • Criminal history
  • Employment history
  • Credit report
  • Education history
  • Military records
  • Driving record
  • Medical records, if necessary

Usually, a background check is conducted after the interview process, before offering an applicant the job. Why not conduct background checks on every candidate? Conducting a free background check is time-consuming, and asking a consumer reporting agency for help is costly. Conducting background checks on the final two or three applicants saves time and money.

If you’re the employee, being asked to run a background check is a good sign, since they’re only conducted on top-ranked candidates.

Why do employers need background checks?

A free background check is a simple task that provides valuable information during the hiring process. Companies run background checks to learn more about candidates, verify the information that’s given to them and check for any suspicious behavior that’s not fit for the workplace.

Background checks have become a necessary tool for many companies looking to make sound hiring decisions. More specifically, companies run background checks to:

Reduce potential legal problems

An employee with a problematic criminal background can result in lawsuits. If an organization hires a violent felon with a history of assault, for example, and that employee hurts someone in the workplace the injured employee can claim negligent hiring. Why? The company should have known about the employee’s criminal past and kept such a threat out of the workplace.

Fifty-two percent of businesses say learning about a candidate’s criminal history is the main reason their company conducts background checks.

Create a safe work environment

Background checks are also conducted to ensure a safe work environment. Lawsuits aside, no one wants to work in a place that’s not safe. To protect employees and stimulate a positive work culture that attracts other employees, it’s best to run background checks on new candidates.

Confirm work history

Embellishments are common on resumes, which is why many companies conduct a free background check to confirm employment history. It’s one thing to exaggerate job duties or the length of employment at a company, but in some cases, employers have found a candidate’s entire work history to be a lie.

As an employer, you want to know that an applicant does have the experience you need to get the job done.

To help find the right employee

Given the wealth of information learned from a free background check, employers can use it to pick the right candidate. Hiring the wrong person is a costly mistake. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates the cost of a bad hire is 30% of the employee’s first-year earnings.

Let’s say you hire a mid-level manager at $60,000 and find out a few months later he’s not working out. The cost of this poor hiring decision is $18,000, which is 30% of his salary.

Of course, hiring the wrong employee isn’t just a financial burden. The wrong employee could disrupt your work environment and drain morale, which is also costly.

Essentially, companies use free background checks as a tool to help ensure the best possible candidate is hired for the position.

Rules for conducting an employee background check

Believe it or not, there are rules to conduct a background check. Most of these rules are based on federal or state law. Before conducting any background check, be sure you understand the rules and regulations that govern it.

Remove the box

For starters, if you have a box on your application that asks prospective hires if they’ve committed of a crime, you should probably remove it. Many consider this question discriminatory, and there are several states and counties working to pass legislation to remove it permanently.

Instead of asking the question on the application, move forward with interviews and run a background check when you narrow the pool down to a few candidates.

Get permission

You must have written authorization to obtain an applicant’s criminal history, educational records, credit reports, medical records and character investigations. To get the most information, you need contact information including the applicant’s name, social security number and date of birth.

If you plan to request medical records, the records must pertain to the job duties. If you want military records, you’ll need consent to learn more than rank and salary. To learn about disciplinary actions or character references, permission must be granted in writing.

If the applicant refuses permission, you can legally remove the candidate from the list of potential hires.

Discuss findings

If you do find something questionable during a free background check, you should speak with the candidate. Give them a chance to explain what you found without making assumptions.

Be consistent

The hiring process, including the background check process, should be consistent for every employee. The idea is to create a repeatable hiring process that’s fair for everyone.

Talk to legal

Speak with your legal team to make sure your hiring process follows the law and doesn’t discriminate.

Can employers really conduct FREE background checks?

Yes, you can conduct a free background check online on potential employees. However, the accuracy of the information returned should be called into question. Paying a small fee to use a paid background check service will limit the number of inaccuracies in the report. In addition, conducting a free online background check will take time. Employers will spend a few hours visiting several different websites to gather the information necessary to make a decision.

How to run a free background check with DIY tools 

There are many websites that can help you in your search for information. Unfortunately, you won’t find a one-stop website that gives you all the intel you want by running a simple name search. If you want that kind of convenience, you’ll have to pay for it.

To go the no-cost route, you’ll visit several different sites. Here’s a list of places you can visit to glean value information about potential employees:

Search engines

One of the easiest places to start your free background check is with a search engine. Using Google or Bing, enter a candidate’s name, run a search and see what comes up. A simple search can connect you with photos, social media accounts, content created by the applicant – and much more.

To get the best results, put the candidate’s name in “quotes.” The quotes tell the search engine to only return exact matches.

If the candidate has a common name like Mike Smith, add more keywords to narrow the search. For example, you can search, “Mike Smith, Syracuse, New York.”

Social media accounts

Part of your free background check should include a look at social media accounts. Seven in ten Americans use social media, according to the Pew Research Center, so odds are your applicant has at least one social account.

Social accounts provide a glimpse of an applicant’s life that’s not found on a resume.

Start with Facebook. This social channel typically gathers the most information about users for its profiles. If your candidate has a public account, you can see what he or she has posted. If your candidate has a private account, you won’t be able to see anything.

You can, however, conduct an advanced search on Google that scans Facebook for public posts or group posts that includes your candidate.

You can also run names through LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram. LinkedIn will offer work history, which you can compare to the resume you were given. Twitter and Instagram reveal the personal side of potential employees through short messages and pictures.

Government Websites

Much of the information included in a background search is public information and can be found on government websites and services, including the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

  • searches public records from hundreds of different sources. As the name suggests, the information gathered leans more on the criminal side, as it scrubs the internet for police reports and court records.
  • ZabaSearch offers a people search that can compile a person’s address history, relatives, places of work and schools attended.
  • SearchSystems is a search engine for public records. By entering a name, you can look at things like birth records and property ownership.

What red flags should an employer look for?

Once you have the background check in hand, what should you look for? Here’s a list of red flags that are cause for concern:

Criminal history

One of the biggest problems you can find during a check are black marks in a person’s criminal history. However, an arrest record or a criminal conviction isn’t necessarily grounds for rejection: one or two misdemeanors in one’s past do not make them a threat or defacto poor candidate. There are laws about rejecting an applicant solely based on criminal history, so it’s best to speak with your attorney on the next steps.

Poor credit history

If an applicant has some credit card debt and some high school loans, it’s not uncommon. However, multiple foreclosures or bankruptcy could indicate money problems that may affect job performance.

Questionable behavior on social media

Part of an applicant’s background check should include a deep-dive of their social media accounts. Pay special attention to any questionable or unlawful behavior. If you’re interviewing a 19-year-old applicant, for example, and his social media account is full of underage drinking pictures, it’s a red flag.

While social media posts aren’t a candidate’s complete story, it is a representation of how they conduct themselves and should be taken into account.

Failed drug tests

Background checks can also provide results to any recent drug tests. If the applicant has failed any, it should serve as a red flag.

Gaps in employment

An applicant may “tweak the truth” on their resume to eliminate gaps in employment, but a background check will reveal the real truth. If there are any gaps in employment, especially if they aren’t mentioned on a resume, it’s worth talking to the applicant about.

There may be a logical explanation for the gap, like taking care of sick loved one or moving to another state. Still, it’s best to ask the reason behind the gap.

What should you look for in a third party company?

If you aren’t confident in learning how to conduct a free background check, you might turn to a consumer reporting agency for help. If so, here’s what to look for:

Comprehensive reports

When you get a report back, you want it to contain all of the pertinent details. You want to know about criminal history, sex-offender status, employment records, education records, credit reports, civil records, driving records, workers’ compensation history – the works.


A lot of companies claim to offer background checks, so do your due diligence. Make sure the company is trusted and reliable. Ask for references to ensure quality service and product.


If you plan to use a third-party company, they should comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act, also known as FCRA. In addition, being a member of the National Association of Professional Background Screeners is also plus.

Turnaround time

If you plan to conduct your own free background check, the turnaround time rests on your availability. If you use a screening company, ask when you can expect a completed report. Long turnaround times could delay your hiring process, so ask about timing upfront.

Check out our roundup of the Best Background Check Companies for Employers

Can you reject an applicant because of what’s found on a background check?

You’ve conducted a free background check, and you uncovered some troubling issues. Can you decide not to hire someone based on the results?

The background check can’t be the sole reason for rejection unless the information found directly affects the candidate’s ability to do the job, explains Jaburg/Wilk, attorneys at law.

If a background check plays a role in your decision to reject an applicant, you must:

  • Notify the applicant of the reasons for your actions
  • Give the applicant a copy of the background check
  • Tell the applicant the name of the company that conducted the background check and the phone number
  • Explain the reasons for your decision

Of course, it’s always best to consult your company’s lawyer to make sure you’re following federal and state laws. Your legal team can walk you through the process and generate the necessary paperwork to comply with employment laws.

Wrap up

For most employers, a background check is as common as an interview. It’s a vital piece of the hiring process that provides valuable information about an applicant. Whether you decide to conduct a free background check or use a third party, what’s learned from the report helps ensure the right person is hired. While the background check isn’t the sole deciding factor, it is another piece of the hiring puzzle that gives employers the opportunity to find out as much as possible about an applicant in a short period of time.