In today’s climate of heightened security and corporate accountability, companies looking to fill IT positions are checking out a job candidate’s background more thoroughly than ever. According to recruiters and hiring experts, companies are diligently striving to protect themselves by ensuring that potential hires have clean records.

The key for job hunters who may have a dark spot of some kind in their backgrounds is to realize it’s likely to be discovered; they should, therefore, be up front about any blemishes on their records.

“Background checks are becoming standard practice,” said John Heller, a recruiting specialist with Wam!net Government Services Inc., a government contractor in Herndon, VA, that specializes in building networks. “We’ve hired 250 people already this year, and we’ve done background checks on every one.”

Why more background checks are happening
With the current dearth of job openings, companies have the luxury of being able to be very selective in the hiring process,” explained TechRepublic member, Charlie Harag, who is currently looking for a job. Also, there are a number of types of companies or job openings that will most certainly require background checks—no matter what the economy is like. For example, according to Harag, “If the company does business with the government, or is a defense contractor, you should expect detailed background checks.”

Just a few years ago, when the IT hiring outlook and tech economy was bursting, many companies went without background checks due to time issues and the need to get people into place on dot coms and new projects. The slower growth pace today affords companies more time to do background and candidate investigations. It’s also become much easier, and more cost effective, to perform job candidate checks thanks to the Internet.

Limits to legal background checks
Yet, job seekers should know that employers don’t have carte blanche to dig into their pasts. Job candidates have rights regarding what personal information employers can access, and it’s important to know these rights before beginning the interview process.

An amendment to the 1970 Fair Credit Reporting Act, which gives consumers who are applying for credit the right to review and explain the information lending institutions base their decisions on, grants interviewees some basic rights as well. The amendment, which took effect in 1997, states that employers must receive the consent of job candidates before investigating their past. (For more information, go to the Federal Trade Commission’s Web site.)

In addition, there are many state and local laws that limit employers’ background checks, such as restricting them to uncovering only the information about the job applicant that would be relevant to the advertised position.

“Essentially, employers shouldn’t ask anything that’s not job-related or that won’t give them the information needed to make a good hiring decision,” said Carl Crosby Lehmann, an employment law attorney with Gray Plant Mooty in Minneapolis.

Typically, a company will alert a candidate before or during the initial interview advising them that they perform background checks. Often, it’s part of the first step: The job application usually includes a reference to the types of investigations (criminal, financial, education, and qualification verification) that the company performs. Remember that by signing the application, you are giving the company the right to poke into your past.

Taking the right approach
Regardless of how the employer raises the issue of background checks, candidates should be proactive and disclose any questionable background issues that would be revealed in an investigation.

“You need to be up front and honest about it; if you’re not, it becomes an integrity issue,” said Marilyn Durant, director of business services firm RSM McGladrey’s HR practice for Florida.

Contrary to what candidates might think, employers don’t necessarily eliminate potential hires just because of blemishes on their records.

“We understand that there are underlying circumstances for everything, and we do not come to any conclusions or judgment before a proper investigation of the findings is concluded,” said Mary Medved, Wam!net’s VP of HR.

But, she stressed, candidates must be open about the issue from the beginning. “Being forthright in the interview process demonstrates that you have nothing to hide.”

While Lehmann agrees that it’s best to be up front about black marks on your record, there are certain types of background problems you can’t easily explain away.

“If you’ve got a conviction for something serious, that, unfortunately, is going to be a strike against you, it’s always going to be there,” he said. “Those people tend to get hired by those companies who don’t do background checks.”

And remember that it’s not just your criminal or financial history that you need to be up front about. Durant related a recent interview in which a candidate for an IT position lied about his education—a fact Durant later learned when she checked with the university listed on his resume.

“He lost the six-figure job because the job description required a college education,” she said. If he had been up front about his deficiency, there might have been a workaround.

Consistency in information is also key to moving ahead with interviews and job opportunities, as companies traditionally create a paper trail for each interviewee (including applications, resumes, notes from in-person interviews, etc.) and compare the documents to ensure the same story is being told.

“Finding inconsistencies is a huge red flag,” said Wam!net’s Heller. Yet many companies are often forgiving if the inconsistencies are the result of simple mistakes. “Sometimes, resumes aren’t updated; that’s not a showstopper. If [the interviewee is] qualified, we’ll keep the process moving forward,” she said.