In the information age it’s usually relatively easy to find out all about someone by doing a simple Google search. The burning question of online daters, “do I google my date before the date?” applies equally to employers. Can, and should, an employer background check a candidate? If so when? And how deep can and should they go?

Background checks are common and are becoming more so. Here is a rundown of some best practices.

What is a background check?

Job candidates might wonder what a background check is and why they are being asked to consent to one. A background check might include a closer look at:

  • Education
  • Professional credentials or registrations
  • Employment history and references
  • Driving record
  • Criminal background
  • Social media presence

This can reveal a lot of personal information. In all circumstances, the information required should be rationally connected to the job on offer. For example, your driving record should only be relevant where the job requires you to drive.

Interview the candidate first!

Going to town on Google once you know only what the applicant has revealed in their application can bring up a litany of information, much of which might touch on Human Rights Code (the Code) protected grounds. For example, googling a candidate might give you easy access to information about their age, gender or ethnicity. While some of this information might be apparent when you meet the candidate, all applicants should equally have an opportunity to present themselves and their qualifications. When an employer gathers outside information prior to a candidate being interviewed, the chances that this might not happen increase.  

Better still would be to take the candidate on their word, make them a conditional offer of employment and then conduct a background check. This ensures that the decision about whether or not to hire is not tainted by Code protected grounds. If something turns up in the background check, the offer can be rescinded based on the fact that it was made conditional on passing the background check.

A further way to avoid tainting the interview and decision-making process is to have a person not making the final decision to conduct the online search and/or to outsource to a third party. This helps separate the roles and keeps the recruitment process focused on actual merit and less exposed to inadvertent human rights complaints.

Can and should employers do this?

As noted above, an employer can ask for a background check but the scope of the check should be rationally connected to the job itself. For example, a police vulnerable sector check makes sense if the job requires the candidate to be alone with small children.  It does not make sense if the job is in a cheese factory.

In most cases, a background check should not be done prior to a conditional offer being made. Checks should also only be done with the candidates consent and only to the extent required to ensure that the applicant is qualified to do the job in question.


The message for employers? Restrain yourselves until you’ve made a provisional hiring decision based on the information the candidate has given to you. Take them at their word prior to digging into their background.

The message for candidates? If a potential employer is asking you for information that doesn’t seem relevant to the job, or if they are asking you to consent to a blanket check as part of the application process, they may not be the employer for you.