Why Would Someone Fail a Background Check & How to Avoid It

At some point you are going to run into a situation where you need to pass a background check. Background checks are run by virtually any employer to check for a criminal record, credit history, and any other factors that might be important for the position.

Different types of background checks are also run for security, employment, driving record, or even more depending on the situation.

Failing a background check often means an employer will rescind a job offer, or a bank may refuse to lend to you for a business, mortgage, or other expense. This can also prevent a person from getting certain jobs that require a clean drug record, driving record, or high-level security clearance.

Common Reasons for Failing a Background Check

The most important thing to understand about how background checks work is that they have a different standard than a criminal record check where you either have a record or you don’t. Or a drug test where it’s a pass or fail situation.

A background check that is made during the hiring process involves many things. Do you act professionally on social media, or do things that could embarrass your employer?

Did you inflate your GPA versus your official college records or lie about your employment history on your resume?

Especially when applying for a job there are multiple situations or red flags that could result in a failed background screening.

Not all of these will apply to every background check, but it’s important to know that you can have a clean drug test, clean criminal record, and still not pass a background check.

Criminal History

As hard as it can be to do, if you have a criminal history, you should always reveal that to a potential employer before the hiring decision is made.

An employer may give a chance to someone with a past run-in with the law, and there are even programs like Jail to Jobs that to help connect ex-cons with available jobs.

However, if it’s discovered you lied about not having any criminal history then that kills the chance of the hiring decision resulting in you getting the job.

It’s always best to be upfront and honest so there are no surprises from the results of a background check.

Poor Driving Record

Especially for any jobs that require driving, a poor driving record could cause you to fail.

Since a company has to have insurance for their drivers and vehicles, and can be found liable for accidents, in those situations someone with a long history of speeding or accidents wouldn’t be a good fit.

Even if the job isn’t mainly driving focused, a long history of driving issues could be interpreted by many employers as being a reflection of individual responsibility or recklessness.

Poor Credit History

Credit reports are a major part of a surprisingly large number of job candidate background checks. Many potential employers see a credit score as a potential indication of discipline and responsibility.

This isn’t a criteria for every company, and will vary based on the company’s background check policy, but it is something to keep in mind.

Because of the Fair Credit Reporting Act you are entitled to one free copy of your full credit report each year. This is a good service to take advantage of so you can see what they are likely to see on any credit checks that come along with their background check service.

Be sure to correct any errors and see what easy steps you can take to make your credit look better since this might make you look better as a job candidate to some companies.

Failed Drug Test

A failed drug test is almost certainly going to be an immediate fail on any employee screening.

There’s not only the fact that the use of drugs being tested is going to make you a liability, but there’s also a very real “They knew the drug test was coming and were still stupid enough to fail it” line of thinking.

Incorrect Employment History or Education Records

Any discrepancy in education or employment history that recruiters or HR finds when they run a background check will almost certainly disqualify you immediately for that job.

Important: If you ever had an incomplete grade or audited a course in college, it’s important to re-check your school records to confirm, especially years later!

I have personally found errors on my transcripts where audits were switched to an F over a decade after the fact. Fortunately for me this was a known issue from a systems switch that happened years ago at that University.

Unfortunately for me, it meant even a cursory check of my records for any academic job I applied for at that time made me look like a liar.

Check your records on a regular basis, and don’t lie about past jobs or your education history.

Social Media

The keeping your personal and business life separate is always good advice, especially on social media. Personal social media profiles should be set to private so only friends can see them.

This applies even if you’re not a huge partier or you don’t post anything most people would consider embarrassing. Your social media will be checked.

What if the recruiter disagrees with your politics? Or your faith? Or your favorite sports team?

These are stupid reasons to fail a pre-employment background check, or are even very illegal – but can you prove a recruiter you don’t know looked at your profile didn’t hire you for that reason?

No, you can’t.

Assume any employee background check includes social media, so any public profiles need to be professional with that in mind, and all others set to private.

Resume & Application Inconsistencies

Any weird looks or inconsistencies when comparing your application to their background check results can help employers move your application straight to the garbage bin.

Does your LinkedIn profile match your uploaded resume? Did you count three side hustles as jobs and have yourself down for 4 separate jobs in the same year?

These are things that are going to raise red flags, and you want to make sure to avoid them.

Negative Reviews from Past Employers

This can depend a lot on state laws. In some states a previous employer can only confirm time of employment and if you resigned or quit versus getting fired.

Recruiters looking into the applicant’s work history will conduct background checks with past employees based on an applicant’s resume.

While it’s never good to be deceitful if there was a situation where an abusive boss or work culture forced you out, it might be better to deal with a potential resume gap than take the chance of getting bad-mouthed.

The other option is if you had a supervisor or manager, or even a co-worker who worked with you and would speak very well about your work, to make them the contact for that past job (if they agree, of course).


Small gaps in a resume aren’t as big a deal as they used to be, but you will still need to expect to answer questions about gaps in employment, especially if those gaps are large ones.

If the rest of your history looks good and your criminal background check and employment verification come back clean, then there’s a good chance you will be able to defend those gaps.

If you’re prepared with great answers to those questions, that could even turn a potential weakness to a strength.

Consequences of Failing Background Checks

Failing a background check may lead to many consequences, not the least of which include missed opportunities.

Common consequences of a failed background check include:

  • Not getting hired for a dream job
  • Getting fired from a job
  • Going to jail (rare – but if you’re on probation and fail a drug test…)
  • Withdrawing of a job offer
  • Blacklisting from getting hired at that company in the future

Employers want to make an informed hiring decision and that means there will be background screening.

Make sure to take the proper steps to avoid any chance of failing and missing out on potentially life-changing opportunities.

How to Avoid Failing a Background Check in the Future?

There are a few things that you can do to minimize your chance of failing a background check that comes with employment screening.

Being proactive is crucial to make sure you maximize your chances of getting that special employment opportunity that could be a game changer.

Run a Background Check Report on Yourself

How will you know what a background check reveals about yourself? The simplest way is to look at the best companies out there and get a copy of the background check they run on you.

You may find that there is inaccurate information – perhaps from someone who even shares the same name as you. This doesn’t happen often, but it can take place if someone isn’t thorough enough.

It’s worth paying the money to find out just what the results of these background screening reports will be.

Get Your Free Credit Report

There are entire websites and YouTube channels committed to improving your credit score. Often times a few small changes can make a huge difference when it comes to a big jump in credit score.

Address Any Inconsistencies & Gaps

Take a look at your LinkedIn, old social media posts, and your resume. Is there any information that could appear contradictory? Lists of jobs that don’t relate to your career? Major gaps?

This is the time for you fix those potential problems so potential employers can be confident in hiring you.

Don’t Lie

If you get caught in a lie, whether it’s employment or education, that is going to be instant ground for denial of a job, or getting fired from a current one. Why take that chance?

If you played with the truth a bit in the past, this is the time to change your documents to be a more accurate reflection of your history.

The Power of a Unique Cover Letter

It’s hard to stick out with a dull, templated, or AI-written cover letter because hundreds of other job applicants are doing the exact same thing. Focus on a great cover letter.

This can also be your chance to work on a creative or direct way to address something potentially harmful that a recruiter is going to see from the results of the background check.

If you had driving issues, a criminal record, or anything else that could give pause, try spinning it in a way that grabs attention from paragraph one and parlay that into an experience or point of view that makes you better than other candidates.

It’s a high risk/high reward strategy but it can be surprisingly effective and if you don’t think you’re getting the job anyway based on the results of any check on your past, you have nothing to lose from trying this technique to stand out.

Passing Your Employment Background Check: Final Thoughts

Now you not only understand how a candidate fails a background check, but also what you can do to avoid the same fate yourself.

Taking the actions described in this article will help you put your best foot forward and give you the best chance of getting the job no matter what your situation.

Written by Shane Dayton

Shane, an MFA grad and seasoned online writer, specializes in security and privacy, using his vast state-to-state travel experiences to guide readers through the complexities of information safety in a digital world. Read more of Shane's articles.