Sunday, August 31, 2008

Watch Your Back(Ground)

Readers of my blog know that I have been “in transition” several times. Seeking my next opportunity, and so on. Fortunately, I am in a place that – for the nonce – likes me, and I like them. I hope this continues as I like having a steady income!

But in 2003-2004 I was out, and looking… and getting quite desperate. As I’d opined, in more than one letter to the editor, as well as my piece entitled “The Perfect Fit, Isn’t” on Ask The Headhunter, I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t getting at least one offer. It was truly baffling; it still is, though I think I’ve identified at least two possible causes. I’ll address one in this column.

So, let me tell you a short story. It was 2006. I’d been working some contracts off-and-on, at least getting something resembling a reasonable income, when I finally landed a full-time job offer. To say I was ecstatic would not have been an exaggeration. It also provided me the opportunity to move from my house – a white elephant in the picturesque but economically-moribund town of Springfield, VT (home, now, to the Simpsons). Don’t get me wrong; nice town, nice people, just not for me.

Offer letter and checkbook in hand, I explored apartment complexes. I found one with a good price, nice layout, and great location. I go in, fill out the application, and warn them that since I’ve been un- or under-employed for over a year, my credit history might be, um, imperfect. Of course, there are other questions and slots to fill out, and I do so. And to one, to be described in a short time, I answered “no.” My paperwork is taken by a slim, young blonde woman who says she’ll just run their standard checks, and be right back.

I’m waiting, and waiting, and waiting. I’m actually getting a little antsy when the male apartment complex manager comes in, closes, the door, and says that they have to deny my application (I was a little baffled why the person with whom I was dealing changed). My reply, of course, was to inquire if my credit history was that bad. He replied it wasn’t; the reason for my denial was that I lied on my application form. About that “no” answer. About my saying “no” when their background check showed I had a felony conviction history.

People within 100 miles or so probably felt the shockwave of my jaw hitting the floor. I think my exact words were “MY WHAT?”

They showed me the printout, how a guy with the same first and last name, plus same birth year, was convicted of a very bad thing (details omitted) in Pennsylvania – interestingly, at the same time that I had been living there going to graduate school. We had, provably, different middle initials, and oddly the birth month and date were blank. But they denied my application, stating that they couldn’t take the chance based on the information they had. I asked them to run it again through this private database company. They did. Under my Social Security Number was this felony conviction.

To make a long story short, I did get it cleared up. It took getting fingerprinted and sending the prints down to Pennsylvania, whereupon the State Police there - who were very kind, professional, and prompt – verified by fax and hardcopy letter that I was not this guy based on the fingerprints. (I could have, and did, know this but it was good to have that confirmation!) Armed with this, and the knowledge that this was on my record with this company, I did get an apartment in another complex.

The whole crisis, though, got me thinking. If I had not needed to move, I would never have learned of this mix-up. Why would I get my criminal background checked because I know I don’t have a record! And I wonder how many interviews were promising, only to have this pop up in a background check – which companies are now doing more and more often – and have the company drop me like a hot potato… without telling me. There’s no way to know.

I’m on LinkedIn, so I posted a question outlining the events and asking what companies would do in this situation: specifically, having a potential employee state clearly on the application that they had no record, only to have something like this pop up. The answers surprised me.

More than a few said they’d do the responsible thing, which would be to inform the person of the conflict. At least, even if the person didn’t get the job, they’d have the opportunity to know about the problem and address it.

Many, however, said that they’d simply drop the candidate from consideration without mentioning it. After all, one need merely state – regardless of the legalities – that the person “was not a fit” and simply move on to the next supplicant, er, candidate. And a couple of respondents actually blamed me for not knowing (one or two, most likely non-native English speakers, didn’t understand my story correctly and assumed I WAS lying about it – something I tried to correct).

How many candidates have you, as a hiring manager or HR person, rejected because of something like this? Did you, at least, inform the person of the findings? Supposedly there is a law that if something in a background check deters a hire, the person must be informed. Of course, this is unenforceable in practice. Given careful non-documentation, how would it ever be proved this was the determining factor. Protests aside, everyone knows that some things are always better left undocumented.

I have a common name. Now, yearly, I run a background check on myself. Companies like this constantly buy and sell data; who knows where this might have been sold to before they cleared my entry. In fact, having just moved, I sort-of hoped they would have found this again. I’d certainly be a rich man by now. But they didn’t – I’m clean, as it should be.

But if you’re having a lot of trouble finding work, perhaps it might be wise to invest in a credit and criminal history check. Who knows what screw-ups are lurking, possibly costing you? Especially if you have a common name. It pays to watch your background.

I'm back...

Thanks to those who commented on my mother's situation.

The good news: She's happy at home, and seems - for the most part - to be stable.

The bad news: She's clearly on a downslope. What that slope is, and where the terminus point is, are unknown.

We - family and friends - are trying to get her to voluntarily move into assisted living. I fear that, at some point, I may need to seize the controls and do it involuntarily. Hopefully not.