February 1, 2022

Background Checks and Indiscretion Indigestion © Cici Mattiuzzi

Job offers are always contingent on background checks. If you are getting the keys to the castle, they want to know that you have good character, good judgment and solid ethics, and that you are scrupulously honest.

Everyone has skeletons in their closet. Things that you have done that you wish you had not. Sometimes it is something small that just goes into long-term memory as a learning experience. Other times it is something that will come back to haunt you. Cleaning out the closet is not always an easy task but it is entirely necessary before you start applying for professional level career positions.

Once you make it through the interview process and the hiring manager decides you are a good fit for an open position, you will receive an offer of employment that is contingent on the background check. The offer could be withdrawn if they find something in your background that shows you have bad character or if they discover you have misrepresented yourself. (Don’t even think about lying on your resume! An engineer lied on his resume about belonging to a professional organization he didn't belong to and it was discovered. That was the end of the interview and any hope of an offer.)

If you think they won't find something you would like to hide, think again. The web and social media platforms are a quick way to learn almost everything about a candidate. It takes no time at all to find every little indiscretion out there. Discrepancies on your LinkedIn, lies on your resume, or much worse. If they are out there to be found, the investigators do not have to look too far to find bad deeds.

The social media posts about the US Capitol insurrection on January 6th 2021 are a case in point. 700 plus people have been arrested to date after having been found on social media posts – many by fellow participants rather than their own posts. My guess is that their careers are over.

And then there are the people having meltdowns in all types of public spaces who are captured on a bystander’s TikTok feed. Remember the woman yelling racial slurs at a guy in Central Park? She was fired by her employer a few days later.

Things are frequently posted impulsively without thought for the future consequences. There it is – your dirty laundry – right out in public square – pictures of you sitting suggestively on someone’s lap or guzzling beer at a tailgate party. It might not even be on your social media. It could be on someone else’s page and there you are – exposed for the entire world to see.

If you are applying for a job in law enforcement or in some national security related fields, the scrutiny is even more intense. Expect friends, relatives, co-workers, professors and neighbors to be interviewed by the security consulting firm hired by your potential employer.

Think again if you think you are going to talk your way out of it if they find your fingerprints somewhere. Using pirated copies of software and computer games is not ok, Period. And there is no good excuse. "Everyone else does it" did not work with your parents, and it certainly is not going to cut it for a security conscious employer.

Over the years I have worked with numerous individuals who have had stellar academic careers and amazing technical talent who got caught up in an unemployment purgatory. When they applied for career level jobs, they found questions on applications that were tough to answer: Have you ever been convicted of a felony? (Some states have ‘ban the box’ laws on this pre-screening question on employment applications - but it can be explored before employment begins.) Have you used drugs? Do you have a DUI conviction?

Your past can catch up with you. When you least expect it, something that you totally forgot or suppressed in your memory can severely disrupt your employability. Unpaid debt, criminal history, drug use, a DUI are all things that can be dredged up by potential employers to be weighed in the employment decision.

The Web provides unlimited searchable sources of information for investigators hired by your potential employer. Topics employers are forbidden to ask in an interview are exposed: Are you married? Are you engaged? Are you pregnant or planning to get pregnant? How old are you? Have you ever been sick? Have you ever been seriously injured? What is your religion? What is your nationality? Have you ever been arrested?

After an offer of employment is made, the background checks and lab tests begin immediately. Expect to be subjected to drug tests, a DMV check, a credit report check, a criminal background check, and an extensive web search. No, you will not have time to clear your system of most drug residuals. I once told an engineering candidate to withdraw his name from consideration because he was certain he would not pass the test.

In my experience the investigators do not always get it right. Sometimes the records are inaccurate. I worked with a candidate to sort out the details of an arrest that resulted in a misdemeanor but the records showed a more serious charge. The offer of employment was withdrawn. A bit of digging, correction of the record, and a well written letter resulted in a reinstatement of the offer.

Sometimes youthful indiscretions during early years can be cleaned up with a pardon or expunged records, especially after the person has completed a degree and shown significant academic and internship accomplishments since.

Troubleshooting problems after they cause you heartburn is way less desirable than identifying any and all potential issues before starting your job search. Once the application is in, and the offer is made, it is almost always too late to do damage control. The earlier things are corrected the better off you will be.

The people who do background checks are frequently former FBI or law enforcement agents. Anything you have to hide, they will find. Whatever indiscretion you engaged in will sound much worse when you are confronted with it by your now disillusioned prospective employer.

It sometimes takes a lot more than memory loss to repair the damage done by indiscretions. Sometimes it is necessary to bring in an expert. Over the years, I have sorted out the aftermath of the disaster caused by mistakes made before and during college for a number of individuals.

Salvage operations are never easy but it can be done. It is definitely best to avoid problems, but if need be – sort it out with an expert before applying for career level positions.

Cici Mattiuzzi is the Author of ‘The Serious Job Seeker’ and the founding director (emeritus) of the Career Services Office for the College of Engineering and Computer Science at CSU Sacramento.