By KRISTEN MCNAMARA
After three rounds of interviews for a sales position with Prudential Insurance Co. of America, Patricia Rosa received a letter in February saying her job application was denied based on information from a background check she authorized the company to conduct. The only blemish on her record, she says: Poor credit that built up since she lost her job two years ago.
Unemployed and in debt, Ms. Rosa is among a growing number of job hunters who find their financial past interfering with their professional futures.
Concerned about rising rates of employee theft and fiduciary issues, more employers are conducting credit background checks on applicants for some positions. Companies say the financial information can offer insight into a candidate’s level of responsibility. But people whose previously solid credit has been damaged by the economic downturn say they are victims of circumstances beyond their control.
Ms. Rosa believes her credit woes lost her the opportunity at Prudential. A company spokeswoman said Prudential doesn’t comment on specific job applicants but that each candidate authorizes the company to conduct a background check, which may or may not include a credit check.
A 49-year-old single mother of three, Ms. Rosa fell behind on her mortgage and other bills a handful of months after losing her job as a New York City office manager for a mortgage company in early 2008. “My house is in foreclosure,” the Nyack, N.Y., resident says. Ms. Rosa is now searching for positions outside financial services, believing other industries will be more tolerant of her debt.
The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act gives employers the right to conduct background checks on current and potential employees through third-party companies, with the individual’s approval. Some 47% of employers say they check the credit history of applicants for certain positions, according to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management of more than 430 organizations in late 2009. That’s up from 42% of employers in 2006. Just 25% of employers in 1998 said they regularly or sometimes checked applicants’ credit histories.
Companies typically look back over a period of years for patterns in applicants’ behavior, says Mike Aitken, the professional group’s director of government affairs. “It’s a longer-term snapshot to see if that’s indicative of fiscal responsibility,” he says.
The vast majority of employers who conduct credit background checks do so for jobs with fiduciary or financial responsibility, such as accounting, budgeting or those involving cash or sensitive credit-card information. Nearly half the respondents also consider the credit of candidates for senior executive positions.
Lawsuits or other judgments outstanding, or multiple accounts in debt collection, were the types of credit information most likely to keep an organization from extending a job offer, according to the survey.
Legend Financial Advisors Inc., which has about 20 full-time employees, conducts a background check that includes credit for all new job finalists, says Diane Pearson, a financial adviser at the firm.
The Pittsburgh wealth-management firm had its first encounter with a candidate’s poor credit last year, she says. A college student applying for a summer internship had a history of unpaid bills and bounced checks. The firm decided to bypass the candidate. If he had been a candidate for a full-time position, “we may have spent more time and energy” examining the circumstances, Ms. Pearson says.
Knowing what is on your credit report and offering an explanation for debt caused by a specific event could keep negative information from derailing your employment chances.
First, be sure you understand what employers can see on a credit check and make sure you understand your report so you can explain any problem areas. Employers receive a credit report, not credit score, from consumer reporting companies. A report includes debt, bill-paying history, number and types of accounts, how long you’ve had them, and whether you’ve been sued or have filed for bankruptcy, among other factors. Information can go back seven years—or 10 for bankruptcies. Credit scores, on the other hand, are used by lenders to help determine if you are financially worthy of a loan.
Certain factors that could hurt your credit score, such as a recently reduced credit-card limit, would be unlikely to hurt your job prospects. Employers focus on issues like collections and defaults, says John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education for Credit.com Inc.
You might be tempted not to sign a waiver allowing for a potential employer to conduct a background and credit check. But refusing is likely a deal breaker, career counselors say. Employers will assume you are hiding a serious problem, and in today’s job market, they won’t have trouble finding a more forthcoming candidate. Most employers don’t seek permission for a background check until they’ve narrowed down the pool of candidates to a group of finalists, or have made an offer contingent on such a check, the SHRM data show.
“You really need to explain your circumstances,” says Tammy Kabell, of Career Resume Consulting, based outside Kansas City, Mo.
Sandy Gross, founder of Pinetum Partners, an executive search firm in Greenwich, Conn., focused on financial services, also suggests explaining the circumstances surrounding the negative information that will turn up and the steps you took to address the situation before employers run a check. “No one likes a surprise,” Ms. Gross says.
Critics of the credit checks say they create a vicious cycle that prevents those who most need jobs from getting them. Lawmakers are pushing for change. U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen (D., Tenn.) has proposed a bill to prohibit the use of credit checks during the hiring or firing process, with certain exceptions. And some states have passed or proposed laws to restrict employers’ use of credit checks.
Consumers can request one free credit report each year from each of the three nationwide credit-reporting companies—Equifax, Experian and TransUnion—through AnnualCreditReport.com. You are also entitled to a free report in certain situations, including if you are unemployed and plan to look for a job within 60 days, or if a company says it didn’t hire you because of your credit history.
If you find mistakes, alert the credit-reporting bureaus and creditors in writing. The process takes time, so review your history at least a month or two before you expect employers, or lenders, to request it, says Experian vice president, Michele Bodda.