Using Credit Checks for Employee Screening – Slippery Slope

The Times and NPR have written recently about employers using credit checks as an additional means to screen potential new hires.  I’ve heard about these on rare occasion but it seems that a trend may be developing whereby one’s personal financial situation becomes a hiring tool.  This is an interesting issue that poses some important questions:

  • Should potential employers have access to your financial history?
  • What relevance does one’s credit score have on employment candidacy?
  • What protections have been put in place to prevent abuse?
  • Who (what federal agency) is representing the interests of the candidate?
  • Are employers opening themselves up to potential legal problems by making hiring decisions based on personal and confidential financial information?
  • What kinds of externalities can we expect from this activity?

Lets start with the most basic question – why should potential employers have access to this information?  The most compelling argument I have seen is that potential employers can use a credit report to gauge a candidate’s decision-making abilities.  It goes like so: the likelihood that a candidate who has a history of delinquencies, collections, foreclosure or perhaps a bankruptcy will make similarly poor decisions in their professional life is higher than a candidate with a clean credit history with few or no blips. In other words, the argument says, “hey, this person has taken good care of his/her financial reputation and demonstrated responsibility over the long term”.

While I may appreciate and even agree with that claim, I cannot reconcile that argument against a more important claim – that personal financial and medical information is too sensitive to be used for anything other than what they were originally intended for – doctors need your medical record to provide health care and banks need it to decide whether they should lend you money for that car or business idea. Why did I throw in medical information? Because I consider both to be the last bastions of personal privacy afforded us by the government from prying employers, insurance companies, marketing agencies and the like.  Although HIPAA has made progress with Protected Health Information it seems that our credit history is slowly becoming a one-stop shop for anyone willing to write Experian, TransUnion or Equifax a check.

Another area of concern is what happens to this information once it is obtained by potential employers?  Who in the organization has access to this information?  In today’s world of Twitter and Facebook how long will it be before we hear about someone tweeting about a candidate’s bankruptcy?  What happens after a candidate has been hired?  Will the employer have an obligation (read unintended consequence) to disclose any of this information to other parties?

Perhaps my strongest concern for using credit reports as a way to screen job candidates is the long-term and compounding (yet to be determined) socioeconomic effect.  Hans Rossling’s enlightening presentation at the 2006 TED Conference comes to mind.  Watch it below.

What we should be cognizant of is that this is a slippery slope we have started.  I know that my car insurance provider accesses and (whether they acknowledge it or not) utilizes my credit score to determine my premiums.  Although I have yet to be asked by a potential employer for my credit report it may only be a matter of time.  What will be next?  Will credit scores be required for admission to colleges and universities? Hey, the admissions departments could argue that it would help them keep their graduation rates high.

I can imagine a situation where pervasive use of credit reports for employee screening could perpetuate a gradual segregation of those who have had the success or luck in maintaining their credit in good standing from those who have not.  I can imagine watching Hans Rossling’s presentation 10 years from now as he shows the ‘completely new world’ we live in, where those with good credit have access to every definition of economic opportunity one could conceive while those with poor credit are left to struggle for whatever remains as they descend into a self reinforcing spiral.

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