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Special Edition - Part 2:
Does HR go too far when screening candidates?

In the January 14 issue I answered a question from a frustrated reader who said, “I think it's time someone addressed the invasion of privacy that [job] applicants are subjected to."

The last issue presented comments from two readers who suggested this practice is widespread, and one of them – an HR professional – questioned the legitimacy of the extreme background-checking practices of many HR departments. In this issue, we continue with other insightful comments from readers. I can't represent what they say as fact, but they have prodded me to do more research. I hope you are stirred to do the same, until we can all get a better handle on a disturbing phenomenon.

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Where does all that confidential information go?
Subscriber Earl Rice, also an HR professional, suggests that Pandora’s Box has been opened. He points out that in their zeal to protect themselves and their companies, HR departments may be covering up illegitimate and possibly illegal practices. When HR outsources background checks and investigations of candidates, is HR doing its job, or is it ensuring plausible deniability while letting loose an investigative demon that systematically violates people’s privacy and feeds the specter of identify theft? Hold onto your seats. We’re about to take a rough ride through a nasty landscape.

Regrettably, all these procedures and processes are advocated by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), as six months’ worth of reading its web site will reveal. And, just as regrettably, many HR people fall right in line, like little ducklings swimming behind the mother duck of SHRM. It's the latest rage, just like BMWs were a few years back, and every HR person wants to be a part of it.

With thousands of people applying for each job and the jobless rate for skilled and white-collar workers at a recent all-time high, the applicants, like sheep being led to the slaughter, will subject themselves to almost any practice and jump through almost any hoop to get a job. The theory is that any job is better than no job.

The background-check processes are, the majority of the time, being outsourced to security companies that have turned these processes into a lucrative business: background checks, personality testing, criminal checks, educational checks, military service checks, employment verification, reference verification, credit checks, drug testing, searches into legal agreements, scanning of your phone records, scanning of your Internet activities and e-mail, and so on. This total invasion of privacy beyond your wildest dreams (actually, nightmares) is outsourced. The worst part is that much of the data and information these outsourced security agents collect is erroneous.

HR will narrow the list of candidates down, and then turn the outsourced security investigators loose on that list. Background checks are often done before the first interview, and before any sort of an agreement, authorization, or disclosure is signed by the job applicant. You will never know about it until you order a copy of your credit report and find all the inquiries (that’s the first sign) and wonder, who in the devil is that who has run checks on you?

The larger outsourced security/investigative companies have started keeping databases of their own. One advertises they have a database of over 1.5 million people for employers to run their candidates against. If you have signed one disclosure for one employer, the investigations company that did the checks will keep the information about you in their database and then just re-sell the results to their next client.

They start with a name and phone number and e-mail address from a resume or application. Then, they cross-reference information until they get a date of birth or social security number and go from there. When an applicant walks into HR for that first meeting, they already may have been investigated. Never mind that much of the data gathered may be erroneous. The "data" was gathered at arm's length, but the employer will treat it as absolute fact.

Security and background checking has become a lucrative business. The outsourced investigators are starting to sell that information amongst themselves, expanding their databases and increasing their profit margins. The shuffling around of this data only makes its accuracy even more questionable.

This is an industry that is almost totally unregulated. The multiple levels of outsourcing and subcontracting yield enough plausible deniability to the companies themselves, and their clients, that abuses run rampant.

Earl Rice

Whew. Mr. Rice’s characterization of the background-checking process is so startling that I ran it by a privacy/security expert. All she would tell me was that we should keep an eye out for news on the subject. Apparently, we're not the only ones discussing this topic.

A bold, clever way to protect yourself
So, what can job hunters do to protect themselves? Leave it to our subscribers to come up with a great idea.Reader Peter Kraatz decided he wasn’t going to take it any more, and he suggests a way you can draw the line, too. His method has another benefit. He claims it helps him separate serious, credible employers from the tire-kickers. Read on.

I have to agree with your assessment of the general ridiculousness these HR folks are perpetuating. I am a job seeker, and I like to keep things in perspective by reminding myself and my prospective employers that I am a professional and should be treated as such.

One HR department required I send W-2s, financial history, and signed release forms for all sorts of irrelevant information. This, after simply submitting my resume and requesting more information about the position! No telephone interview, no in-person interview, and certainly no contingent offer -- just a demand that I lay bare all of my records without any assurances as to their safety and security.

By politely requesting a signed confidentiality agreement before I will release what financial information I wish to share, I weed out the “lookers” from the serious bidders. If they are truly vetting me as a candidate, they will agree without question.

I take this position to remind everyone (myself included) that I am a professional. I am not looking for a job flipping burgers. I am looking to continue my successful career with an organization that is serious about a profitable and long-term business relationship. Good business relationships start with respect. I respect that the organization might have a valid need for my records. Now they need to respect my need to insure my family's financial data is not disseminated to the gossip pages. Any company that cannot step up to that plate is no company to work for.

The top five or ten percent of folks who produce the most (your "A" players) talk to one another. They never lose contact because there are so few of them out there and they enjoy working with one another, whatever industry they may be in. A company without that measure of respect for your privacy only has to tick off one or two of the top performers before eliminating themselves from the whole group. It's hard running a business with slackers, but when that's all you can hire because your HR Department is a black hole...

How long do those companies last, anyway?

Peter Kraatz

Just fill out this form. Trust me.
I decided to produce these two Special Editions because, whether we have hard evidence of abuse or not, I am convinced there is a serious problem with the hiring process at many companies. While some employers may be innocent, we need to ask whether they are being responsible. Others are overstepping the bounds of what is legitimate and ethical – and possibly legal -- when conducting aggressive background checks on job candidates. Worse, employers are putting you at risk because they presume to entrust sensitive information about you to parties with whom they have only an arm's-length relationship. Where is the accountability?

Job applicants need to be aware of the risks they take when divulging information about themselves – any information. It seems that even your name, address and phone number might be enough to allow an employer’s investigator to access every nook and cranny of your life without your knowledge. If the law is being circumvented, then the law needs to be enforced – or our legislators need to start working on laws that will protect our privacy.

In this day of heightened sensitivity to security, it’s important to recognize that the problem lies not in checking people out. The problem lies in unethical, unwarranted and possibly illegal procedures conducted at arm’s-length from those responsible for the security of the very candidates they are “checking out”.

Time-out for accountability
A responsible employer should have good answers to these questions, and a job candidate should not hesitate to ask them before submitting even a resume:

  1. What kinds of checks does the employer conduct? Are they legal?
  2. Is the candidate notified in advance and given the opportunity to decline to be investigated? Is the permission form clear and easy to understand?
  3. Who is conducting the checks -- the employer, or a subcontractor who in turn subcontracts the investigations to yet another firm?
  4. What information is gathered? How is its accuracy determined? How valid and reliable is it?
  5. Does the candidate have an opportunity to review and confirm or contest the information?
  6. Is the information secure? Who has access to it? Is there a risk of identity theft?
  7. Who owns the information and what rights do they have to it?
  8. Is the information maintained in data bases not directly controlled by the employer? For how long?
  9. Is the information made available to any other parties at any time for any reason? Is the information re-used or sold?
  10. Does the candidate have the power to limit or rescind rights he has granted for use of the information?
  11. What responsibility and liability does the HR department accept regarding the collection and use of your private information?
  12. Last and most important, is the employer prepared to sign an agreement to protect you and your private information?

Are you willing to apply for a job without answers to all those questions?

Maybe the biggest question we’re left with is the one we originally asked: Does HR go too far when screening candidates? Until HR owns up to its responsibilities, maybe your best protection is to lay your own agreement on the table – and refuse to divulge anything until they sign it.

Again, many thanks to those who shared their comments and insights.

Hang in there,

Nick Corcodilos
Ask The Headhunter®

P.S. – Next week we’ll return to our regular Q&A format, but I’m going to include a special bonus in that issue: suggested wording for an agreement to protect your privacy. 


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Your honesty gives you credibility without seeming to lecture from an academic ivory tower. Once again, I'm impressed by your wisdom and your Nabokov-esque erudition. :) Nice job.

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