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Wanted: HR exec with the guts to not ask for your SSN

In the December 2, 2014 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job seeker hesitates to hand over a Social Security number:

Question

The more I read your columns, the more I realize that the employment process is not just broken. It’s inappropriate and run by people who think they can demand anything from people who need a job. Like private, personal information you’d never just hand over to anyone.

I viewed an employment application yesterday and I didn’t have issues with most of what tssnhey asked for, until I got to the request for my SSN. What do they need that for? My thinking is that providing your SSN would only be appropriate if and when you are hired. In your opinion, when would it be acceptable to provide your social security number (SSN) to a potential employer?

Nick’s Reply

Employers, like your phone company and gas company, use your SSN to identify you in their databases because it’s a unique number. It’s the lazy vendor’s way to track customers, and the lazy HR department’s way to track job applicants. And it’s frankly irresponsible.

Here’s what Pam Dixon, Executive Director of the World Privacy Forum, says:

“Never put a Social Security Number on your resume. You can provide it when you are invited for an interview or when the employer obtains your permission to conduct a background check. Widespread access to your SSN puts you at risk for identity theft.”

(So, uh… do employers ever conduct background checks before meeting you, or without your permission? Yep. For an example, see Big Brother & The Employment Industry: “All your employment are belong to us!”)

I know many HR workers will shake their heads and say I’m being overly cautious, and that they really do need a job applicant’s SSN. So here’s my challenge: Give me one good reason why an applicant’s SSN is necessary to proceed with a job interview.

I’ve asked this question of HR again and again, and no one has been able to answer it satisfactorily. We’ve already discussed how this “SSN protocol” has spawned unintended scams: How employers help scammers steal your Social Security number.

If it needs a unique identifier, why doesn’t the employer just ask for your credit card number? For that matter, why don’t you — the applicant — ask the HR representative for his SSN, as well, so you can do a background check on him? (Two can play this game, if one thinks he can justify it.)got-guts

Yes, these are rhetorical questions — but they’re no nuttier than improper requests for your SSN.

I don’t believe any employer really needs your SSN until you are hired, when it’s necessary to process and report your contributions to your social security account. If the employer needs it to conduct a background check, wouldn’t you want the employer to put some skin in the game first — for example, by actually interviewing you and indicating it’s interested in hiring you? I’d take that a step further and ask the employer to (1) disclose exactly what kind of check it’s going to do, and (2) agree to show you everything it finds. (Even credit bureaus are required to show you what they find. Which reminds me: You should be just as wary of requests by employers for your credit report: Presumptuous Employers: Is this HR, or Proctology?)

If you think my suggestions are a bit over the top, then try responding to the employer with these two businesslike questions: For what reason do you need my SSN? Or, What are you going to do with it?

The reality is, some software designer included an SSN field in the employer’s database, and the HR department bought the software without questioning the design and intent. Because HR relies on such software to process you, HR doesn’t know what to do if you decline to provide data the software “requires.” Go figure. Suppose the software included a credit card field instead — that’s unique to you, too, right? But no one would expect you to provide it, because the employer doesn’t need it.

I feel your pain. Some employers will boot you out of the hiring process if you don’t give them your SSN (and your salary history) — just like a phone or cable company will refuse to sell you service without it. I wish someone would file a lawsuit.

When you’re stuck, blocked by a faceless job application form that asks inappropriate questions, there’s just one thing left to do: Go mano a mano. Yes, I’d call the employer — on the phone — and explain that you’d like to apply, but that you will provide your SSN only if you are hired. “So, how do we proceed with my application?”

Of course, HR might have a problem dealing with a human applicant, and it may have a policy against talking to applicants on the phone. Hey — where did you get HR’s private phone number, anyway…?

Do you hand over your SSN when applying for jobs? Is there an HR executive out there with the guts to stop asking for job applicants’ SSNs until after HR has decided to make an offer?

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35 Comments
  1. On the two items of SSN and salary history, it would be tricky to get a lawsuit going, but it would make sense to immediately contact your local, state and federal representatives to block these inquiries. They all have websites and methods to connect. Also, contact your professional organizations to push them to lobby for these corrections.

    A big problem with both of these practices is that often the front door is guarded by the application system (Taleo, etc) so it is near impossible to get an application in that does not service these violations of privacy, no less actually finding a person to discuss the issue with.

    Hey Nick! How about you set up a petition to fwd to the lawmakers?

  2. Once a business collects Personal Identifiable Information (PII), they must take steps to protect the data. In the invent of a data breach, the company will incur thousands if not millions of dollars to remediate the breach including legal, notification, and credit monitoring costs. The best way of avoiding these costs is to not collect SSN’s until required.

  3. As Michael mentioned, this is a big security risk. If the employer won’t accept “not now” for an answer to the SSN, flip it on them. Ask for their privacy policy and how they protect this information. Ask who they give the SSN to for background checks. Ask who they’ve hired to provide insurance for identity theft and how much each incident is covered for and what services are provided (card replacement, legal assistance, etc.) Ask when you can expect a notice from the insurance company that you’re now covered along with contact information, policy number, account info, etc.*

    If you want to be really snarky, then ask the company for their D&B number, EIN, etc. And ask the HR drone for his/her SSN.

    (* I worked for a company that actually had employment records compromised. They did the stand up thing and paid for identify theft monitoring/protection for all current *and* former employees for a year or two. I don’t think they collected SSNs for applicants, but if they did, those would have been part of the compromised records and would have been covered.)

  4. HR is no different from a choosy person in search of a mate.. they are just looking for more reasons to disqualify you.

    In this case, HR asking for SSN is just to do a credit check before the hiring manager can even interview you. Other unnecessary information can just as well be the 4th, 5th, or 6th reference, the fourth interview, the invalid psychometric test, etc.

    Although they will never give you reason for not interviewing hiring, often the unspoken thought is “Oh, you have a 650 credit score…. We only hire those with scores over 700…”

    Honestly, it’s a power trip as well. HR feels like it is ‘the prize’ and YOU are never good enough for ‘the prize.’

    At the end of the process, no one is hired, but that is how it was meant to be. In the mating game, the choosy person becomes the spinster/aging loner.

    “Never Settle!”

  5. I would not disclose my SSN unless I was offered the job. Providing a SSN just to apply for a job is an open invitation to identity theft, and you have no way of knowing if this information is secure. There is no sane reason to provide a SSN to HR until you are hired.

    If your information is compromised, it is a huge effort to get the mess cleaned up.

  6. Funny, in Canada you can’t use the SIN (Social Insurance Number) as an ID number, and companies seem to function just fine.

    An old timer told me that when Social Security started, the American people were promised that the SSN would never be used as an ID number. That lasted until the 1970s and computerization.

  7. Once, I let my guard down and put a SS Number on an application because I really wanted the position.

    Less than 3 months later I get an email the company was hacked!!!

    NEVER Again!

  8. I run HR in our organization. I only ask for the SSN when we need to do a background check. It is part of the form the applicant signs to give us permission to do the background check.

    We do sensitive government related work, so we do criminal background checks. We only do credit checks for financially sensitive positions.

    Anyone who tells you they need it before that is not being truthful and just looking for a reason to justify their existence.

    We hire lots of good people and I am proud of how I run HR – we are not always the bad guy. The secret is that I make the hiring manager do most of the work. Only the hiring manager knows what they need. You would be surprised how many hiring managers are lazy and want HR to do all the work. I just push it on them and make them do the interviews. In the end they get a much better candidate.

    And any organization who does background checks without getting written permission from the applicant is looking for trouble. There is something called the Fair Credit Reporting Act and it covers all checks, not just credit checks. They need to get their act together and get in compliance with the law.

  9. In Canada, you are not required to provide your SSN (SIN) prior to hire.

    Employers are only allowed to ask “are you legally entitled to work in Canada?”

    There are also numerous other instances where people are not required to provide their SSN or SIN, but are often asked for it.

    Employers can certainly generate candidate ID numbers if needed, without using a SIN.

  10. @Michael: I don’t think it matters at all what the penalties and costs are to employers for mis-use of ID information. Just look at the consequences when those obligations fail to be met by major companies. It’s a cost of doing business. When JP Morgan can pay $6 billion to avoid criminal charges for bilking consumers and investors, I don’t think employers have much fear of the law. It’s all part of their budget.

    @Carl: You have clearly articulated some of my main reasons for advising people to GO AROUND HR.

    @dlms: I agree, but when people apply via online forms, the process is terminated if they don’t enter their SSN. See my comment to Carl above. The stunning thing is that job seekers insist on following HR’s process because they really believe there is no way around it.

  11. @Alan: Thanks for posting an HR perspective. I like your approach: “The secret is that I make the hiring manager do most of the work.” And I agree that many managers would really like it if HR did all the recruiting and hiring work. That’s a sad commentary on management.

    If an applicant consents to a background check, that’s up to them. I’m curious: Do you do the background check (with the applicant’s consent) before or after you interview them?

  12. @Joyce: I think Canada has a smart solution. Even if the question about whether a person is legally entitled to work in Canada is in writing and requires a signature, it’s still more reasonable than asking for an SSN/SIN – which is unnecessary in the interview process. Thanks for sharing that.

    Isn’t it interesting that the U.S. government has no regulations about how SSNs are used and abused by employers? The problem is one of intimidation — when the online form demands the SSN “or you may not continue your application,” job seekers are of course intimidated and feel they have no choice. As Jim JDR points out, Taleo controls hiring at many, many companies — and there’s no stopping it unless HR stands up and has the guts to say NO MORE. (Of course, applicants can do the same, but then they can’t apply.)

  13. @Nick: We only do a background check as a last step when we have already made the decision to hire a candidate. They have already been through all the interviewing and the manager has selected them for the position. We do the background check before we make the actual offer. I see no point in paying for a bunch of background checks we don’t need. As far as I know we have never disqualified anyone because of the background check. And for our work they need to be able to qualify for a federal ID so they have to pass the background check.

  14. Excellent and timely article, Nick!…This whole issue is a hot one for me (in other words….it leaves me hot under the collar! :) )

    Back in July, I wrote my U.S. Senator about an aggravating problem that pops up again and again re: Social Security numbers (SS#s) and recruiters. Recruiters will often ask me for the last 4 digits of my SS#, and if you don’t give it to them, you simply do not move forward in their process to present your resume to an employer.

    Here’s an excerpt from my letter:

    I’m a technical writer who is searching for work. There’s a practice by recruiters and companies that I’ve encountered many times (and that’s been going on for quite a period of time). The practice is their request for the last four digits of my Social Security number. They say the information is needed to track applicants in an applicant database or is needed in a database should the applicant be hired by the company. A couple of times in the near past, I’ve given recruiters that information, but I always felt uncomfortable doing so.

    Here’s an excerpt from a typical e-mail message I receive when a recruiter notifies me about a job opportunity. In the message, is the following request for information…(Please note the request for the last four digits of my social security number):

    If you are Interested Please fill the below details send me along with your updated resume for further process.

    Consultant Name:
    Location:
    Visa Type:
    Date of Birth:
    Last 4 digit SSN Number:
    Alternate Contact:
    Expected rate per hour:
    2 Professional References:

    With the last 4 digits of my social security number, my birth date, and my name, a nefarious person could readily steal my identity…and even if they did not do that they could discriminate based upon my age if they had my “true” birth date….

    …..• Some research shows that in some cases it’s easier than people realize for hackers to find out the first five digits of a person’s social security number, but it’s usually much more difficult to discover the last four digits. Therefore, when job applicants give away the last four digits to recruiters and companies (where they are applying for work), and if those last four digits fall into the wrong hands, it’d be not that hard for a clever person to determine the entire social security number. For more information on the research study, see: http://arstechnica.com/science/2009/07/social-insecurity-numbers-open-to-hacking/
    ……

    ———————-

    I never recd. a response to the above letter, but I still think applicants need some type of federal labor law to protect them from the practice.

    In the absence of any protection for applicants, if a recruiter asks for the last 4 SS digits, I catch four floating freely through my head and give them to the recruiter. I don’t know if this is an answer or not, because maybe they can somewhere down the line tell I’ve faked ’em.

    It’s a nasty practice by recruiters, and I wish it would stop.

  15. Hi Nick,

    I agree with what you’ve written, but maybe there is another reason they want to have a unique number that cannot be changed. A credit card number is unique, but you can cancel a card, but never your SSN. Perhaps they want to know if they’ve interviewed someone in the past?

    Regards,
    Yoni
    Rehovot, Israel

  16. @Jim B.

    If I recall correctly, the first 5 numbers (or some subset thereof) is based on birthday and the region in which you were born.

  17. It’s shocking how grossly unprofessional business behavior has become in just the last 10-15 years. The concept of “Best Business Practices” no longer exists. It’s devolved into grab whatever u can from whomever u can. But guess what? It takes no training, education, knowledge or experience to operate on that minimal level. Kudos to cheap labor! Yikes!

  18. I know this isn’t a target job market for the readers here, but most retail job applications come with an “attached” background report release form. That obviously means your SSN, and also in many cases agreeing to a background check rigorous enough for a security clearance. I have also seen applications for simple sales associate jobs asking credit report authorization, which is actually illegal in this state.

    I guess my point is, this practice is very widespread for low-paying jobs, and there is nothing you can do about it, because there are thousands of other applicants willing to sign anything.

  19. Nick:

    I enjoyed your column today about Social Security Numbers. This has been a pet peeve of mine for years.

    I have been a recruiter for more than 30 years. I spent the first ten on the vendor side before moving to the corporate world. In that time I have prided myself on not becoming one of “those people” that you often point out…and not in a good way.

    During my career I have been in charge of recruiting functions. Two of my past employers had candidates fill out paper application forms in the lobby when they arrived for interviews. Those forms asked for a SSN. I stop that practice immediately. Even though these were paper forms and a candidates could simply not fill in a SSN, I was amazed at how many would do it.

    I have also been responsible for selecting and deploying ATS’s. In those cases I made sure that we did not ask for a social. Luckily, I have worked for enlightened HR people who supported my decisions.

    I will ask for a SSN only after an offer is made and accepted. At that point as you mentioned it is required for background checks and payroll.

    One last point…a couple of times in my life as a candidate I was asked to complete on line forms during the interview process. If asked for a SSN I would “game” the system with something like 555-55-5555 or 123-45-6789. I have advised many over the years to do the same.

  20. @A.I.: I find that the bigger the recruiting project (e.g., to hire LOTS of people), the more rote, impersonal, thoughtless, and automated the process is. An HR manager at a big box store told me some time ago that his company used an overseas “background checking firm” to investigate every applicant – before the company even decided they might be a viable candidate. It’s so cheap that operations like this just opt to “do it just in case.” Imagine getting rejected after a check was done on you, but without any personal contact.

  21. I actually contact my State’s Labor and Industry Department about this. They seemed unconcerned by the large companies asking for your SSN. In fact I was told it was for the company’s own security.

    Since then most of the larger companies have moved to asking for the last 4 digits.

    My concern has been discussed by others in this thread. You assume the person collecting this information as a duty to protect it. Well almost every time I get asked for all or part of my SSN it is by someone with a strong accent from India even though they claim they represent a US company and are calling from a US phone number. No one in India is policing, knows or cares how this person is storing and using your data.

  22. No one should be requiring your SSN until an offer has been made and accepted, and you/the new hire has come in to fill out the paperwork so you can get paid, so taxes and other benefits can be deducted, etc. It makes no sense to ask for this information so early in the process.

    With all of the information about identity theft, with the stories about data breaches at big companies last year and this year (Target, Home Depot, Sony Pictures, etc.), the last thing anyone should do is put down their SSN on an application.

    Quite a few years ago, Massachusetts (government) began to offer drivers the option of having a random id # for their drivers’ licenses numbers instead of the old SSNs. I swapped out back then. Too much is at risk if some low life gets a hold of your SSN. My brother works in prospect research, and he says that those in his line of work are “golden” if they get the SSN of whomever they are researching. They can learn everything about them and then some.

    Many people view business much more favorably compared to government, but if even the Commonwealth of Massachusetts could figure out how to id drivers on drivers’ licenses without SSNs, then surely the private sector can do the same. With all of the technology today, surely there is some feature of software that will allow companies to generate random id numbers for candidates.

    Even worse is that no one is policing this, and companies don’t care if your personal data gets stolen or compromised.

    @Dave: you can tell the state in which someone was born by the first three digits of his SSN.

    I’ve entered all 9’s or all 0’s, and the systems are smarter now–either they won’t let you proceed until you put in “real” numbers or they throw you out. This is all the more reason to go around HR. If a hiring manager told me that he wouldn’t consider me until I provided my SSN, I’d thank him for his time and leave. Anyone who is that cavalier with my data is not someone I want to work with or for.

  23. I agree on it being a bad decision to ask but am surprised at the venom as to assumptions to why it happens. In the group I run this subject comes up and I have had three people discuss why the companies they worked for did it. All three were IT people who set up the HRIS systems that the ATS were connected to. The SSn was part of the system and none of the three even thought about separating out the SSN and other information from the ATS portion. They did what they did as it made the most logical sense for the programmers and not because someone wanted to get the information for wrong reasons. It may still be lazy but maybe for different reasons than you thought.

    On some other comments:
    – Companies do not run credit reports early to eliminate people as that costs money, most on line applications do not meet fair credit standards for permission and if they use the data they are required by law to tell the applicant why and who they pulled the report from
    – Most systems allow you to use 999-99-9999 or all zeroes to bypass it. I would say I found less than 5% did not allow this to get past so like so many other questions (including salary) there are ways to not share the info and move forward

  24. @ Martin: At the risk of stating the obvious, “lazy” and/or “thoughtless” are not good excuses for harming others. Responsible behavior is likely preferred w/o requiring game-playing to “get around” dumb info requests. A little thought will save everyone’s time.

  25. I am currently dealing with a frustrating HR department. Although the hiring manager has instructed them to bring me down for an interview (and pay my expenses), the HR representative keeps talking vaguely about date ranges and promises both an interview date and that another person from the company will follow up with the logistics, only to completely flake on me. They give a range of dates, I say, yes to all three days, and then … crickets..

    Most recently, this same HR person — after two plus weeks– has asked me to do some excruciatingly detailed online profile, submit to a full background check, etc. Trust me, I took a quick look, and it includes everything from SSN/credit check, verification of every address and employer I’ve had in my 18 years of professional experience, etc (might even have a medical review/proctological exam process too , haha)

    I simply told them that if they would set a date and a time for the interview, I will gladly take care of whatever online paperwork that they need. The HR rep simply restarts with the vague date range, the promise of the logistics person contacting me, and then does not get back to me. (nor does this mythical other person who will be arranging my travel)

    Is it too much to ask for sincere interest (in the form of an interview date) before I go through a background check (one that is probably akin to a federal security clearance, given that it is a federal contractor/large consultancy)?

    …and people wonder why I stick to small gigs and consultancy assignments (where the work is just about agreeing upon and doing the work)…

  26. @Carl: Smells very fishy. Your gut is probably right as they may be just collecting data for their gov’t contractor requirements w/no intent to hire. I’ve seen this shameless behavior myself w/a gov’t contractor trying to prove the diversity of candidates. A huge waste of your time, not theirs. Good luck!

  27. I don’t give out my SS# unless I have a job offer/started working and am filling out a W-2 form for tax withdrawals or other paperwork once I am hired.

    Over the past 6 months, while job hunting almost every application online or through a recruiter, I was asked for my SS# and my previous salary history. Online I put in all 9’s or just made up numbers as their systems rarely accept 0’s. Same with salary info.

    Recruiters I have spoken with have demanded my SS# as well as my previous salary history and rarely did they share the salary range for the position they were looking for. I refused many times and was told I cannot proceed with the next stage in the hiring process so I told them too bad but I am not interested in working for a company that demands private and confidential information just to talk about a job.

  28. I remember years and years ago, well before ID theft was a common term, complaining vocally and loudly that my health insurance ID number was my SSN. One time I was at a new doctor, and refused to fill in the SSN on the form. The receptionist told the person taking my form – after I refused, again, to give it – “Oh, it’s his insurance number.”

  29. Am I the only one who HATES HATES HATES Taleo as a first contact with an institution? Who the heck are they and why are the companies putting their trust in them to do the first culling of possible job prospects? I have yet to hear back from any of their numerous applications I’ve filled out, and this is for jobs I was both over and fully qualified for.

    As far as the topic of this thread, any company that asks for SSNs and/or wants to do a credit check on you prior to hiring wouldn’t be able to hire either the federal government themselves (lousy credit, overdrawn up the whazoo) or any international bank in the world… most of whom are proven criminals.

  30. I recently spotted a job posting by an agency which sounded great. I called the recruiter on the phone and was immediately invited in for an interview to discuss the position. I thought it was funny she did not want to do a quick chat as a phone screening. I was asked to bring two forms of ID to our appointment. Hmm.

    When I arrived at the appointed time the next day I was given a massive packet by the receptionist to complete. It included the usual fill-in the blanks employment history, education, and references. It also asked for my SSN and Driver’s License info. Also a W-4 and an I-9. Hmm.

    I completed most of the questions but left blank any spaces asking for the sensitive information. I also politely declined to let the receptionist see my Driver’s License and Passport, the two forms of ID I brought.

    The recruiter REFUSED to speak a single word about the position unless I provided all the information requested. I again politely declined and explain the obvious reason why I was reluctant. She continued to refuse, citing “company policy” so I ask to speak with her manager.

    The branch manager came and spoke with me and again tried to get me to complete all the paperwork. I again politely refused but was able to convince him it would be mutually beneficial for him, his client, and myself for him to discuss the position with me. He very reluctantly agreed and we headed into a conference room.

    Long story short, I was able to clearly build a case as to why he needed to submit my resume to his client. I was more than qualified — that’s for certain — perhaps a tad overqualified. The manager took a lot of notes and said he would speak with the client the next morning. I was to call back late the next afternoon; I thought that was a bit weird that I had to call the original recruiter back to see how it went with the client.

    When I called back, neither the recruiter nor the manager were available any of the three times I phoned. I eventually spoke with the recruiter’s colleague only to be told the position had been filled internally. Hmm.

    First, what a sleazy agency to stonewall applicants for unnecessary and highly-personal information before even speaking with them.

    Second, it’s quite probable I was “blackballed” and never presented to the client because I would not foolishly comply with “policy”.

    I tried my very best to identify the hiring company using details in the job description but was unable to do so. If I had been successful, I’d have pursued the position in a different manner. I really needed that job!

  31. I was recently hire and submitted my US Passport card as my id. Should be all I need to supply to prove that I am legal to work in the US. They asked for my ssn, dob, address,ph,email also. Then they tell me they need a second form of id.
    The only reason they can give me for demanding this is “it’s their policy to have two forms of id”. The US gov. only needs my passport but this outfit needs two ? Anyone know who I can contact to file a complaint?
    Staffing outfit called CORECREW out of Ohio. Working for a company called UNITED GROUP SERVICES.

  32. @John: I’m not sure what recourse you have if you want the job. You already asked why they want another form of ID, but their answer is no better than the puerile “Because.” One way to deal with this kind of thing is to say, “Well, I’d like to be processed with just the ID the US govt says is acceptable. Can you process the hire with just that?”

    If you really want to take a risk, contact United Group Services HR department. Ask them how many forms of ID they require, and explain that you’re qualified for the job and ready to start, but that their “contracting company” is making it very difficult. See what they say.

    You can also get a bit aggressive. Identify a competitor of United’s, and tell Corecrew that you’re considering an offer from that company instead. Do they want to proceed with one ID or should you take a job with the competitor?

    I know this is risky, but when firms like this play such games, I’m game to play, too – but with my own rules. You must decide how far to take this. I don’t think there’s any government agency that’s going to help you. My best suggestion along those lines is your state’s Department of Consumer Affairs and the Dept of Labor and Employment. But how I’d handle that is to say to these offices, “I’m having a problem and I’d like your advice…” Then calmly explain the problem.

    Hope that helps a bit. I’m not a big fan of staffing agencies in general, though there are some good ones. Sometimes you have to push back, but that means they may dump you. I wish you the best.

  33. I’ve had nine interviews in the past two weeks. Five companies requested my social security number, I declined. The coup de grâce was when an IT company hr rep asked for: social security number, height, weight and age!
    WTF!?

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