Background Checks

How To Read A Background Check: A Guide For Employers

  • April 9, 2024
  • Linda Ballard
  • Approx. Read Time: 9 Minutes
Your 5-Step Guide to Understand a Background Check Report

Comprehensive background checks can alert employers to potential issues with prospective candidates. This can prevent employers from making bad hiring decisions that could jeopardize the company’s reputation, culture, and standards.

For instance, finding out that a candidate has a violent criminal history can prevent the employer from making a hiring decision that could put other workers at risk. 

However, conducting these checks is just the first step. It’s also important to know how to read a background check right.

This guide for employers can shed light on various topics, including the following:

    • How important pre-employment background checks are for employers of all industries
    • The various databases at the county, state, national, and international levels used to search for criminal records and how employers can check them
    • Understanding the terminology and abbreviations used in criminal background checks
    • How crimes are divided into various levels, including infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies, and what that means
    • The various factors you should consider when determining if a criminal record prevents employment, such as the severity of the offense and the timeframe

Conducting background checks on potential candidates is an essential part of an effective recruitment process. While these checks can provide relevant information, it’s important to fully understand how to read a background check accurately so you can make the right hiring decisions. 

This guide provides employers with the tools they need to properly read criminal background checks.



Key Takeaways 

Here’s what you need to do to read a background check efficiently.

        • Understand terminology pertaining to background checks and criminal court records. 
        • Carefully review and analyze any records on a criminal background check.
        • Compare criminal records with job duties when making hiring decisions.
        • Remain in compliance with all state and federal hiring laws.
        • Partner with an experienced background check service provider. 


Table of Contents

    1. Understand What's Included in a Background Check
    2. Familiarize Yourself With Background Check Terminology
    3. Understand Report Statuses
    4. Things to Look Out For
    5. Adherence to Hiring Laws

Why Are Background Checks Important?

As an employer, the last thing you want to do is spend company time and resources to recruit a new hire just to find out weeks later that they’re a bad fit. Unfortunately, this is a costly mistake that many employers of all industries make. 

Conducting background checks can reduce the risk of hiring an employee that doesn’t match company values or standards. For instance, this type of check can prevent you from hiring a candidate who could put the company at risk for theft, fraud, or embezzlement. 

This type of pre-employment check can also prevent the creation of a toxic, unsafe work environment. For example, a background check can alert you to a potential candidate’s violent criminal background.

For some industries, such as healthcare, background checks may be a mandatory part of the hiring process. Conducting a comprehensive check can keep your company compliant with industry requirements.


Recommended Reading: What’s the Real Cost of a Bad Hire?


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How to Read a Background Check

Conducting criminal background checks for prospective candidates is just the first step. It’s equally important to accurately examine and read the results. 

Below are several tips to help you effectively read a background check.


1. Understand What's Included in a Background Check

The type of information included in a background check depends on the set criteria you request. Depending on your industry, the specific job role, and company standards, a background check could include search results from multiple types of databases, including:

    • County. While some county criminal records are available online, others are found at the county clerk of court offices.
    • State. Many states now have an online portal for tracking court cases at both the county and state levels. These databases only include cases that originated within a particular state. 
    • Federal. There are 94 federal courts located around the country.
    • International. International court records are kept in adherence to all national and international laws. 
    • Sex offender registry. In addition to court records, a thorough background check also searches state and national sex offender registries of various states. In many cases, the courts order offenders of the most serious sex-related crimes to remain on the registry for a set number of years.

A clear background check reveals no criminal charges of any type. These reports require no further evaluation. 

However, if a search of these databases reveals one or more criminal charges, each one will be listed separately on the report. In addition to the name of the offense, criminal background reports also note the degree of the crime. 

There are different levels of offenses that show on criminal background reports, including:

    • Infractions (tickets). Infractions are minor offenses that typically result in a ticket or fine rather than any probation or jail time. Examples include parking tickets, speeding tickets, or city ordinance violations. Depending on your industry and the job role, simple infractions may not have a significant impact, if any, on employment. 
    • Misdemeanor charges. While misdemeanor charges can be serious, they’re considered less serious than felonies. These charges are broken down into varying levels, including Class A to Class C or Level 1 to Level 3, with Class A and Level 1 being the most serious misdemeanors. Examples include trespassing, disorderly conduct, bad checks, burglary, and possession of a controlled substance.
    • Felony charges. Felony charges are the most serious type of crime and should be carefully examined when considering employment. Felonies are also broken down into different levels ranging from Class A to Class E or Level 1 to Level 5, with Class A and Level 1 being the most serious. Examples include murder, theft (depending on the amount), assault, embezzlement, and kidnapping. 

In addition to the type of offense, criminal background checks also include dispositions. This designates the final outcome of the case.

Criminal cases can have a variety of outcomes.

    • Conviction: Offender found guilty of the crime
    • Acquittal: The offender was found not guilty of the crime
    • Dismissal: Case dismissed, often due to lack of evidence
    • Deferred or suspended:  A deferred adjudication or suspended sentence when the offender is found guilty or pleads guilty and the judge defers judgment to give the offender time to meet certain conditions, such as the completion of drug rehab
    • No charges filed: The person was arrested, but the district attorney decided not to file charges


2. Familiarize Yourself With Background Check Terminology

Information on background checks is usually broken down into several sections. 

One section provides information about the offender, such as their name, date of birth, and any aliases. It’s important to double-check this information to make sure it corresponds with your prospective candidate’s details. 

The report also displays information about the origins of the details, such as the county and court the case was held in, as well as the case number. Finally, the report will provide details of the case, including the specific charges, level of offense, disposition, and sentencing, if applicable. 

Oftentimes, these reports may include abbreviations for some commonly used words in the court system. If you don’t have experience with the courts, it can be difficult to decipher some of the abbreviations. 

To help with this process, below is a list of some of the most commonly used abbreviations in criminal background reports. 

    • A&B: Assault and Battery
    • AA: Aggravated Assault
    • ADW: Assault with Deadly Weapon
    • AFDVT: Affidavit
    • BW: Bench Warrant
    • DUI: Driving Under the Influence
    • EMBZ: Embezzlement
    • LARC: Larceny or Theft
    • MV: Motor Vehicle
    • OCI: Obstruction of a Criminal Investigation
    • PL: Petty Larceny
    • PV: Parole Violation
    • PWC: Passing Worthless Check
    • R&O: Resisting and Obstructing
    • RIOT: Rioting
    • UPRF: Unlawful Possession or Receipt of Firearm


Recommended Reading: 4C of Onboarding


3. Understand Report Statuses

As an employer, you can track the status of each criminal background check as it works through the Cisive tracking process. 

    • Candidate information: The first step is to submit the candidate information to our Cisive team. One of our Cisive Analyzers reviews the candidate information to ensure all relevant information is included and verifies the client’s specifications for the search process. 
    • Initial search: The search process begins with our team using supplemental sources to obtain leads, which are then transferred to the applicable field agents. 
    • Comprehensive search: With this information, field agents search various court dockets for matches against the candidate’s name, date of birth, and any other vital information, such as maiden name or aliases. All matches are verified by the field agents to ensure accuracy. 
    • Initial report: Once the field agents search all applicable court databases, the information is sent to a Cisive Specialist, who compiles all the data and creates a comprehensive report. This report is verified for accuracy before being attached to the candidate’s file. 
    • Reverification: Before being submitted to the client, a Cisive Criminal Research Associate and a Cisive Reviewer Associate will reverify the details of the report. 
    • Final Report: After passing up to five verification processes, the report is then sent to the client. 


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4. Things to Look Out For

Once you receive a criminal background check report for a potential candidate, it’s important to examine the results carefully. If the report is clear and there’s no criminal record for the candidate, you can obviously move on to the next stage of the hiring process. 

If, on the other hand, the criminal records show one or more potential crimes, a closer review is needed. Here’s a look at some factors you should consider when making this decision. 


Status of Offense

It’s important to check the status of the charges. For example, if the charges were dismissed or the charges never led to an arrest, it means the candidate was never found guilty, or there was not enough evidence to proceed. 

On the other hand, if there’s already been a conviction, the candidate was found guilty or pled guilty to the crime. These cases require a closer look. 


Type and Gravity of the Offense

Any criminal record can be alarming to employers. However, it’s vital to evaluate the type and gravity of the crime. 

There’s a big difference between a Class A felony and a Class C misdemeanor. For instance, a felony could be a serious crime, such as murder or aggravated assault, while a misdemeanor could be a bad check or trespassing charge.


Nature of Job Role

While the severity of the offense is an important factor to consider, it’s also vital to weigh this offense against the job role and duties.

For example, a bad check charge may not be very significant in the manufacturing industry, but if you’re hiring someone to work in your financial department, it could make a difference.

Carefully examine the various duties of the job role and compare that to the type of offense to determine if the candidate’s criminal record could impact their job performance or put the company at risk. 


Age of the Charges

Finally, be sure to consider the amount of time that has elapsed since the conviction. Charges that occurred 20 years ago may no longer be relevant, especially if they have no new charges. A candidate with recent charges may be more concerning. 


5. Adherence to Hiring Laws

You may be tempted to decline any candidate who has a criminal record. However, this blanket policy may put you out of compliance with state or federal regulations.

Unless the role in question requires candidates to have relatively clean criminal records, such as in health care, it’s important to carefully review these background checks before making any hiring decisions. 

If, after reading a background check, you still decide not to hire the candidate, it’s important to follow all regulations set by the Fair Credit Reporting Act. This includes sending pre-adverse action letters and giving the candidate time to respond before sending a final adverse action notification. 


Recommended Reading: Best Background Check for Employers


Learn How to Read a Background Check Effectively With Cisive's Expertise

Between legal terminology and different offenses, knowing how to read a background check can be confusing. You can avoid some of this confusion by working with a professional background check provider, such as Cisive.

Our specialists at Cisive can work directly with you to set parameters for your background check process that best meet your needs and comply with legal requirements. 

Best of all, our experts are always available to help answer any questions you may have and help you better understand how to read a background report. 

Speak with a Cisive expert to learn more.


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