Your Career Archive

Steve BranamDecember 30, 2020

Clive Maxfield and Adam Taylor recently published a series of blog posts about how to get and keep an engineering job, discussing preparation in high school through early career stages. I've just started a new job, and wanted to add some information on a particular aspect of changing jobs, the employment background check.

Over the past 10 years, I've changed jobs several times. Three of those jobs, including the most recent two, have required background checks as part of the standard hiring process. The first two included drug tests.

These weren't sensitive positions or anything like that, they were just typical software engineering jobs. But in the US, this has become a more common practice.

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Completing one of these checks takes a lot more than just your resume, and it can be difficult and stressful to gather all the required information in the middle of trying to get a job.

The purpose of this post is to outline the information you need to keep track of over the course of your career to help you streamline the process and minimize the stress. I call it the career archive.

My Experience

A significant portion of the documentation required by these checks included job-specific financial records, as proof of work history. In one case, I was directed to redact the specific financial details; they were only interested in the dates on official records. It wasn't clear if the others wanted proof of salary history as well.

This adds a significant step to the job application process, on top of the online application forms that employers ask you to fill out with exactly the same information you supplied on your resume (fortunately, online application systems have gotten better at auto-filling the forms from uploaded resumes).

Filling out the online background check forms is like a cross between the job application, applying for a mortgage, and doing your taxes, all rolled into one. Some people may find it overly invasive.

And inevitably, there's the dreaded URGENT: MORE INFORMATION REQUIRED email that shows up. That triggers a mad scramble for more documents.

However you feel about it, it requires a lot of detailed information. This adds a new dimension to the information you should keep available over the course of your career.

The Old Career Archive

Prior to this, your employment documentation for typical jobs consisted of at most three things:

  • Resume, which you maintained as the documentation of work history.
  • Contact information for references and past employers, for background and work history verification.
  • High school or college transcripts or diplomas as the documentation of education.

This was the sole extent of your career archive.

There were two problems with this model:

  • People could falsify work or education history, including references and education records.
  • Employers didn't always do a good job of verifying information, so accepted falsified information.

Since the applicant supplied all the information to the employer, there was no independent source of information. Applicants who were willing to lie could say anything they wanted. Typical abuses were inflation of details, or embellishment with non-existent work or education history.

Employers with poor hiring practices or who lacked the resources to do a sufficient job had no protection to assure candidates were truthful.

The New Career Archive

Modern employment background checks are a way to overcome these problems, using third-party services that have adequate resources to do the job. They provide more rigorous, uniform verification processes, and cross check information with independent sources.

This requires more detailed information. The applicant is still the source of that information, but it includes more independently-verifiable details. Financial records are one of the main sources of those details.

The new career archive therefore needs to be more detailed. Good record-keeping becomes more important. 

Knowing what records to keep ahead of time will make it much easier when that day comes sometime in the future when you need to supply all that information for a background check.

The best strategy is to capture information at the time you get it. That's when it's easiest to record, rather than having to go hunt for it later on a short deadline.

Archive Contents

What specifically should you keep in your career archive? Keep three types of information:

  • Job-specific information
  • Education information
  • General personal financial information

Keep both paper and electronic copies of everything.

Different background checks may ask for different things, so you may not need to provide all of this information. These recommendations cover the largest set of information you may need, both primary information and backup information in case of problems verifying anything.

The goal is to be able to provide verifiable information for all questions they might ask, subject to local employment and privacy laws and your own comfort level.

Note that this is based on my personal experience, which is very US-centric. I don't know if this applies equally in other countries. There might also be particular information you feel should be included, perhaps something common to your industry or locale. Use this as a starting guide and tailor it appropriately.

If you had any disciplinary events, make sure you have documentation about outcomes. Remember that part of the background check process is to find reasons why an employer shouldn't hire you, so if there were situations that were resolved in your favor, you want to be able to show that.

Job-Specific Records

For each job, keep paper and electronic copies of the following information, a current snapshot at the time you start and end the job, as well as any transfers within the company:

  • Company mailing address, main phone number, and general contact email. For large companies, this may include both headquarters and local subsidiary information.
  • Departmental phone numbers and email for HR and your work area.
  • Individual work phone number and email for all HR and management personnel involved in your hiring, your work over the course of your employment, and your departure.
  • Offer letters and contracts, including any amendments, and letters of resignation.
  • All documents you signed.
  • First paycheck.
  • Final paycheck.
  • Disciplinary records and outcomes.

If you worked as a contractor, be sure to include information on any third-parties involved, such as contract houses or agencies.

Education Records

For each school you attended, from high school through graduate levels, keep paper and electronic copies of the following information:

  • School mailing address, main phone number, and general contact email. For large school systems, this may include both main and local campus information.
  • Departmental phone numbers and email for your academic area.
  • Individual work phone number and email for all administrative and academic personnel involved in your study there.
  • Transcripts.
  • Diplomas and certificates.
  • Disciplinary records and outcomes.

General Personal Financial Records

Keep paper and electronic copies of the following information for each tax year covered by employment:

  • Tax records (in the US, this is the W-2 form).
  • Tax returns (in the US, this includes federal forms such as 1040 and supplementary forms, and any state and local returns).
  • Tax transcripts (in the US, this is a backup or alternate form of the tax return, obtainable from the IRS at https://www.irs.gov/individuals/get-transcript; mine was available from 2016 on).

Long-Term Condsiderations

Contact Information

Contact information presents a particular challenge. It can be hard to dig out later, and can also change over time. So capture it as soon as you get it, but be prepared to update it in the future.

It can be difficult to go back and dig out contact information for past jobs from old emails and paperwork. You may have only interacted with one or two TA (Talent Acquisition) or HR (Human Resources) people during the hiring process, and then had only one or two managers during your tenure there. You may have forgotten some of their names or not kept a record of their contact information.

Further, these people may have changed roles or left the company. Individual phone and email information may no longer valid. Fortunately, employment verification is usually done by some kind of HR department, which is usually reachable via main company or departmental contact information. 

More problematic is the case where a company no longer exists. It may have gone out of business or may have been acquired by another company (which may have been acquired by someone else!). You may need to lookup the latest information for whatever has become of the original company.

This is where financial records can be particularly helpful, when the background check has difficulty following up on contact information.

Record Storage Media

In my 40 years developing software, I've used the following storage media for resumes:

  • Paper
  • 5.25" floppy disks
  • 3.25" floppy disks
  • Zip drives
  • Writeable DVD's
  • External hard drives
  • Flash drives
  • Cloud storage

What will be the media of the future, for the next 40 years? More importantly, will there be a way to retrieve information off the old media? It doesn't do any good to keep electronic records that you can't access.

Paper is the ultimate long-term archival storage. It's always readable, whatever the technology of the day. Therefore, keep all original paper documents.

In addition, since many documents such as offer letters and payroll records are now electronic, print out hardcopies. Inks can fade, primarily from exposure to light or moisture, so store all paper documents in folders in storage cabinets or drawers. It may be necessary to periodically refresh paper copies by printing out new ones.

Since background checks generally require submission of electronic versions of documents, scan in all paper originals. Popular formats can change. It may be necessary to periodically refresh electronic copies by scanning in new ones. Currently, some systems accept image formats such as JPEG, but some only accept PDF.

This all means you need access to a printer and a scanner, and may need access to newer, better ones over time.

Make sure all copies in all forms include any dates, letterheads, logos, names, titles, contact information, signatures, borders, stamps, embossings, and stickers, in color if possible, in high resolution, to the best extent that they show up on scanned images (that may also make fraud-prevention security marks show up, such as paychecks showing "VOID"). That all serves as visual evidence that these are genuine documents.

As new storage media become popular, copy your archive to them. That means you may need access to newer and better personal computer equipment that supports both the old and the new media.

If you compress or encrypt your archive, make sure the software you use to decompress will still work on newer equipment. You may need to recompress/re-encrypt fresh copies with new software.

Remember that we're talking about information you're maintaining for decades, over the course of your entire career.

Redacted Versions

Some background checks will ask for records where the actual financial details have been redacted. It's possible that additional information will need to be redacted.

Make sure that you have a way of supplying redacted versions in the future. There are two simple ways to create these:

  • Print out a paper copy. Mark over the details to be redacted with a heavy permanent marker, cover them with opaque tape or strips of paper, or physically cut them from the page. Scan the redacted copy in.
  • Make a file copy of an electronic document. In a paint or image processing program, cover or erase the information in the copy.

You can do this ahead of time whenever you add a new document to the archive, or you can do it when requested.

Keep Backups

Whatever storage media you use, keep multiple separate backup copies. You can use different media, as long as they're all currently readable.

Keep backups in separate locations. All media stored in a particular location can be lost due to fire, theft, or natural disaster.

Cloud storage companies can have service outages or go out of business. Their backup and recovery procedures may be inadequate. Data stored with them can become inaccessible temporarily or permanently.

Your best protection is biodiversity, i.e. storing data in diverse forms, in diverse locations and services. While that may seem excessive just for a few job records, you should do this with all data that you wish to keep for the long term, like that novel you've been writing. Otherwise, expect it to vanish from existence at some point.

As you add new media, be sure to add backups.

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