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Can an employer find out if you have been fired for theft?

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"I don't think they can find out why you were fired..."

No law prevents employers from asking or discovering why you were fired, AND taking it into account. Do all you can to try and not get fired.

"By law, the only information they can get from your other employers is the dates you worked there and whether or not they will rehire you.
  • Not at all true. Pay, raises you got, dates, job titles, quality of work, etc. There's a lot that they can ask. More than they can't in fact. It's just that most companies won't readily if at all give it.

"If the new employer contacts the old employer, it is illegal for the old employer to give out detailed information"

There is no such law. See above. Neither employers nor individuals can be successfully sued for reporting facts honestly, regardless of the harm the truth causes.

"Technically they are not allowed to ask a previous employer why you are no longer with them"

Still wrong. See above.

Criminal records kept by the court system are public records and are generally available to employers. The only restriction given by the FCRA is that an arrest record that is over 7 years old cannot be included in an employment check. However the FCRA gives no time restriction on an actual criminal conviction.
Employers may request court records from every jurisdiction where the candidate has lived. Typically employers use a consumer reporting agency to do the criminal check for them. Laws on checking criminal history vary from state to state.  
The answer to this question depends in large part on the state you live in. State laws differs on what they allow previous employers to communicate to prospective employers about employees. Some states, in fact, have passed laws protecting previous employer from liability when the make a good faith effort to communicate to a prospective employer the factual reasons why an employee was terminated, even if it reflects poorly on the employee.

Most claims filed by employees against previous employers for giving out information to prospective employers are based in defamation (libel, if in writing, or slander, if spoken). Fact is an absolute defense to a claim of defamation. So, if what a previous employer says about an employee is true, the defamation claim will likely not succeed. One of the reasons employers have moved away from divulging information about prior employees is not because they will violate the law by doing so, but because the cost of litigating defamation claims of former employees can be very expensive, even if the employer did nothing wrong. Many employers just don't think it is worth the cost of litigation to share unfavorable information about an former employee.
It is generally not against the law for employers (in most states) to give out any information about past employees, regardless of whether they left on good or bad terms. However, most companies will not give out any information other than employment dates, title, and sometimes their salary. The reason for this is because so much weight is given to what a past employer may say that if the company giving out the information makes some kind of mistake, they can open themselves up to a lot of liability from both the prospective employer or prospective employee and then gives rise to costly litigation that companies want to avoid.

If, for example, you were terminated for theft and the company you worked for called and asked what the reason for discharge was and the company said you left on good terms, and then you go on to the new company and embezzle them and they find out later that you were discharged for misconduct, that previous employer has opened themselves to liability because they did not give out the correct information. It works vice-versa too, whereas your past employer mave have said something unfavorable about you that gave your prospective employer reason enough to not hire you. This opens them up to a liability as well.

Therefore, the vast majority of companies will not release anything more than what I said above. I have worked for both very large and some smaller companies in HR where we try to get this information from past employers. They simply do not want to open themselves up to this liability and make it company policy to only give out the very basic duration of employment, title, and if you're lucky, salary.

Sometimes some companies will make a exception to some of this if they have a written authorization signed by you. But usually this is only done for high level positions and they still will not give out any valuable information regarding your particular job performance or reason for termination. The only additional information you might be able to get is was the reason for separation voluntary or involuntary, or they might indicate whether or not you're eligible for rehire (if they say "no", that's a dead give-away that you were involuntarily terminated without actually saying it).
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