A reader writes:
I have a question about background screenings. You’ve advised readers before that it’s okay to omit certain university degrees from their resume (especially if they’ve earned more than one) if it was going to hurt their job search. How does a background screening work? Do hiring managers check each university/degree listed one at a time? I always assumed that all degrees and work experience would just be pulled up in a record attached to the person’s social security number.
Nope, there’s no typing in your social security number and getting a nice, neat report on all you’ve done in your life. Companies either verify each item on the resume one at a time (contacting each employer and each school that they want to verify) or hire a background check company to do that for them. (There’s at least one company that provides at least a partial employment report, but it’s not comprehensive in most cases, particularly where smaller employers are concerned.)
So background checkers are unlikely to know that you attended a particular school that isn’t listed on your resume unless (a) someone else in your background check mentions it to them, (b) they see student loans from that school on your credit report if they’re also running a credit check (which is less common and generally only done for certain types of positions, such as those handling money), or (c) they find out some other way, like seeing some mention of it online.
The exception to this is the sort of extremely thorough background checks that the federal government does for some security clearances, where they interview people who know you; in a detailed check like that, it’s more likely to come up because there’s more of a chance someone they talk to will mention it. But those security checks also generally require you to list everything in your background, rather than picking and choosing anyway.
All this said, when I’ve talked about the fact that advanced degrees can sometimes hurt you more than help you in job searching and suggested that it’s fine to leave them off your resume, that doesn’t mean that you should go out of your way to hide a degree either. You might choose not to lead with it, or to include it on your resume at all, but you shouldn’t actively try to hide it (and you absolutely shouldn’t lie about if directly asked).
Rather, the idea is that your resume is a marketing document, not a comprehensive accounting of everything you’ve ever done, and if listing an advanced degree won’t strengthen your candidacy (and might hurt it), you’re not under any obligation to include it. But you don’t want to mislead people either, and an advanced degree isn’t a dirty secret that you need to hide or pretend didn’t happen just because you didn’t list it on your resume.