Visit Ask The Headhunter | February 4, 2003
Go to Ask The Headhunter web site

the insider's edge on job search & hiring™

Special Edition:
Does HR go too far when screening candidates?

Readers comment
on this controversial topic

In the January 14 issue of the Ask The Headhunter Newsletter I answered a question from a very frustrated reader who said she was "both surprised and appalled at companies who supposedly pride themselves on great customer service and then treat job applicants like simpletons… I think it's time someone addressed the invasion of privacy that applicants are subjected to."

She went on to point out "all the other types of corporate coercion that job seekers put up with, including credit checks, background checks, and other invasions of privacy, when no job offer has even been made."

Looking for more
Ask The Headhunter Newsletters?

Get your own -- free!

The Ask The Headhunter Newsletter is not normally archived online. Only subscribers get it each week via e-mail -- for free!

(From time to time I post an edition on the web site, like this one. Hope you enjoy it!)

Don't miss another issue of  the insider's edge on job hunting and hiring! Subscribe now -- it's free!

The response from subscribers was quick and pointed. So many of you had stories to tell and information to share that I decided to devote the next two issues of the Newsletter to your comments. What you will read constitutes people's opinions -- opinions I find compelling enough to print. I can't represent it as fact, but it has prodded me to do more research. I hope it stirs you to do the same, until we can all get a better handle on a disturbing phenomenon.

Please note that some of the most intriguing comments below come from readers who actually work in HR -- and their critique of the system will make you pause before you fill out your next job application. I thank them particularly for their candor.

Universal bad habits
A subscriber in France chimes in with comments that reveal HR's questionable practices aren't limited by geography or culture. He suggests that the intrusive HR behaviors we're discussing are pervasive, and that they're tied to accountability. The bigger the company, the bigger the HR bureaucracy -- and the greater the tendency to take cover under questionable practices.

The problem I have had with almost all the HR people I’ve met is what we call in France the "umbrella" tactics. It means “open an umbrella even if the weather is sunny and the sky perfectly blue in case a rain may come”. I have encountered the problem in big companies; never in small ones.

The purpose of acting "umbrella" is: if the applicant proves not to be good, I must be able to show that I am not guilty for having let him or her through.

That is why I prefer small companies to huge ones. A small company relies on people; a huge one relies on structures.

Michel G. Fenyö

I think what Monsieur Fenyö is hinting at is a structural movement within HR (or maybe in the corporate world as a whole) to avoid being held accountable for errors of judgment, as if we're never going to hire the wrong people. The good HR worker wants to be reasonably sure about a job candidate, and it's commendable that HR conducts reference checks on prospective hires. But checking people out is one thing. Invading their privacy (and possibly violating laws in the process) is something else entirely.

Yes, HR goes too far, because it needs to justify its existence
Readers sometimes assume that the HR community dislikes Ask The Headhunter because over the years I've used this forum to bluntly expose problematic HR practices. However, lots of HR folks subscribe to this newsletter and many HR executives have bought and use my book. I regularly hear from HR people who recognize the problems in their profession and tell me how they're working to change the system. One of them speaks out eloquently and candidly about the contradictions between HR's mission and HR's practices, and she points to a specific phenomenon that another reader will expand on later: the outsourcing of background checks on candidates.

Thank you for opening up this important and timely dialogue.

I am an HR professional who has chosen not to work internally because of the increasing intrusiveness, oppressiveness, and questionable premises of today's HR practices.

At some point the transaction costs to surveil, monitor, track, investigate, indoctrinate, categorize, rank, probe and scrutinize employees all the way to their bodily fluids may exceed the value created by these practices. The fact that so much of the HR function is being outsourced may be evidence of that the cost of HR has already exceeded its value to the firm.

A large part of the problem is the HR profession's struggle to find ways to justify its own existence. Over the past 30 years, HR has unquestionably jumped on one fad after another, claiming they can help protect the corporation or raise productivity through increasing control and monitoring of employees.

More light needs to be shed on the practices and rationality of the HR profession, including the costs versus the benefits of many HR practices.

For interesting insights into how the industry got to its current state, I recommend "War and Peace: The Evolution of Modern Personnel Administration in U.S. Industry" by Baron, Dobbin, and Jennings, published in the American Journal of Sociology, 92 (1986).

Another good read on the subject is Foucault's Discipline and Punish -- a history of discipline and control practices in prisons, schools, government and the workplace.

Jane Barwell, Ph.D.

Next: Pandora's Box and a savvy solution
We'll continue this Special Edition in the next issue, where another subscriber -- also an HR professional -- suggests that Pandora's Box has been opened. He reveals that in trying to cover themselves and their companies, HR departments may suddenly find themselves covering up illegitimate and possibly illegal practices. When a company outsources background checks and investigations of candidates, is HR doing its job, or ensuring plausible deniability while letting loose an investigative demon that systematically violates people's privacy and feeds the specter of identity theft?

Also in the next issue, I will print one savvy reader's method for avoiding trouble when the HR department goes too far in screening candidates. He has come up with a way to protect his privacy that also helps him "weed out the 'lookers' from the serious bidders".

I want to thank everyone who wrote in on this topic. Till next week, I wish you the best.

Nick Corcodilos
Ask The Headhunter®



Click for book informationThe book behind the newsletter:

Ask The Headhunter:
Reinventing the interview to win the job

"A radical approach to help job hunters win job offers and a powerful hiring tool for employers."
-- Tom Peters



Order from Amazon!
The portable Ask The Headhunter

Order Now!

What is Ask The Headhunter?
Ask a question
Terms of Service
Who is this guy?

Readers' Comments

You are so awesome in your responses to the questions you receive. You always hit the nail directly on the head and I enjoy reading your newsletter and website for answers to employment (and life) issues. Take good care.

Sheila M. Johnson

Welcome to the Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, which you can expect to receive weekly in your mailbox.

Ask The Headhunter features are
now available for

Universal Press

Your readers need career help like never before. Sign up now! Give them the insider's edge on job hunting!

Does your organization have members who need great job hunting advice? Does your school want to give students and alumni an edge on their careers? Does your company want to keep job applicants "close" rather than pay to recruit them again later?

A custom edition of the Ask The Headhunter Newsletter will do it! 

Just ask how.

What is Ask The Headhunter?
Since starting ATH in 1995, I have answered over 15,000 questions about job hunting and hiring... click here to learn more!

Ask A Question
If you have a question, send it to me. I can't answer every question I receive, but each week I'll publish a Q&A that I think everyone will find helpful. (Don't worry; I won't publish your name if your question is selected. Please note that by submitting a question you agree to make it the property of North Bridge Group, Inc.)

Did you like something you read here? Did my advice bug you? Is there a general topic you'd like to see covered? Have an idea about how to improve this newsletter? Please let me know.

Thank you for subscribing!

Nick Corcodilos
Ask The Headhunter®


This newsletter is copyright-protected. Please see notice at bottom of newsletter. Copying, posting on newsgroups, re-distributing, re-printing, and re-publishing are prohibited. However, you can purchase a license to use this content legally.
Just ask.



Like this newsletter?

Don't miss the

Ask The Headhunter Blog!

Visit    Ask A Question    Feedback    Subscribe

Copyright © 2003-2008 North Bridge Group, Inc. All rights reserved. For personal use only. Re-printing, re-distribution, re-publication or re-dissemination, including posting to news groups, is expressly prohibited. Please ask friends to sign up for their own subscriptions at Any mail or e-mail submitted becomes the property of North Bridge Group, Inc. Ask The Headhunter® and other titles are trademarks or registered trademarks of North Bridge Group, Inc. and Nick Corcodilos.

Terms of service & disclaimer. In brief: All information herein is offered as-is and without warranty of any kind.
Neither North Bridge Group, Inc., nor its employees nor contributors are responsible for any loss, injury, or damage, direct or consequential, resulting from your choosing to use any information presented here. Click for details.


Subscribe to the Ask The Headhunter Newsletter - It's Free!