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Employers Get Personal--What Should You Do?  
3/19/2007 8:06:42 PM

By Peter Weddle - Personal used to mean private, but not any more, especially in a job search. Employers are increasingly factoring individual background information into their assessment of job candidates. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, half of all employers were doing so less than a decade ago. Today an astonishing 96% of all companies—small as well as large—are conducting background checks on job candidates. It is now the norm in the hiring process.

What’s behind this surge in investigative activity? Several factors are playing a role:

  • First, with much publicized incidents of workplace violence and the ominous threat of terrorism, employers are increasingly concerned about the security of their workers. As a consequence, they want to be sure that the workers they hire are who they say they are.

  • Second, the legal and financial costs of negligent hiring decisions can cripple and even ruin otherwise healthy companies. In our litigious society, hiring someone who then harms other employees or customers is often a quick ticket to the courthouse.

  • Third, the cost of performing background checks has dropped dramatically due to an increasingly crowded field of vendors who are staffed and equipped to do them efficiently. As costs go down, even small employers are able to afford them.

  • And finally, technology has made it far easier for employers to acquire personal data and will likely make it even easier still in the future. For example, the U.S. Social Security Administration is testing an Internet program that will enable employers to verify candidate names and social security numbers in a single day.

    These factors ensure that personal is now public or, at least, available to any employer who asks. Whether you’re looking for a job today, plan to do so tomorrow, or think you might at some point in the future, this trend will affect you. The question you have to ask, therefore, is: How should you react to this new reality? Here are my suggestions.

    First, take a deep breath. These background checks do not represent the arrival of Big Brother or Big Sister. They may feel a bit intrusive at first, but in the long run, they protect the vast majority of us who have nothing to hide and nothing in our background that would preclude our employment with any organization.

    Second, understand what’s going on. A background check involves an employer’s acquiring information from appropriate sources (i.e., government, officially sanctioned commercial organizations, other employers) regarding your:

  • name and social security number;

  • credit history;

  • criminal record, if any;

  • driving record, if relevant to the job; and

  • employment references.

    The employer must have your permission in writing to check with these sources and must commit to protecting the confidentiality of the information it acquires.

    Third, appreciate the importance of this information. In a nutshell, it can affect your employability. An unfavorable credit report or a disagreement between the information you have provided on your resume and what the employer uncovers in a background check can hurt and even derail your prospects for a job, even if you are otherwise qualified to perform it.

    Fourth, know how to protect yourself. Assuming you are who you say you are and your credit, criminal and driving records are no more blemished than the average person’s, the biggest danger in a background check comes from the errors that can and do creep into the personal information that others collect about us. The key to protecting yourself, therefore, is preparation.

    As a minimum, you should:

    Review your resume. Make sure that it’s completely free of exaggerations, misstatements and/or errors. Recruiters have been exposed to the results of countless studies that confirm the presence of inaccuracies in a majority of the resumes they receive. For that reason, they use background checks to confirm the data on your resume and see any disagreement as a red flag that casts doubt on your honesty and credibility. To make sure your resume passes muster, pay particular attention to what you list as the:

  • dates of your employment with other organizations,

  • names of your previous employers,

  • position title(s) you held with each of those employers,

  • date(s) and type(s) of academic degrees you’ve earned, and

  • educational institution(s) from which you received those degrees.

    Review your credit history. The Fair Credit Reporting Act authorizes you to receive a free summary of the information in your credit files maintained by each of the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. This summary may be obtained from a single source by visiting AnnualCreditReport.com. Your credit score is a dynamic figure, however, and often changes, so it’s very important that you recheck your credit report every year. I suggest that you set a date—your birthday, for instance, or the federal income tax filing deadline of April 15th—to help remind you to do the check. Then, of course, if you find errors, you should aggressively pursue the appropriate credit bureau’s procedures for correcting your record.

    Background checks are here to stay, so it’s important that we get comfortable with them and learn how to use them to our advantage. There are two keys to helpful reports: vigilance and accuracy. They are the beginning and the end of effective preparation. And, that—effective preparation—is what you should do to respond to employers getting personal.

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