In 2013, consumer advocates seemed ready to score a big victory for job-seekers, with a bill wending its way through Congress that would have prohibited potential employers from checking your credit report before making a job offer. But the bill got stuck, and now state governments are stepping up to provide some protections against employers using credit reports in hiring decisions.
According to Employee Screening Resources, a handful of states, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia (D.C.), Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington, have either passed or are planning to pass laws that limit the use of credit histories in employee hiring decisions.
But that leaves the vast majority of U.S. job-seekers vulnerable to credit histories being used against them in hiring situations.
"While credit history is important if you are going to make a loan to a person, it's not a good indicator of a person's responsibility and maturity," says Marc Prosser, co-founder of FitSmallBusiness.com in New York City.
Prosser says there are a number of reasons why someone might have a poor credit history and yet be a mature and responsible employee. "A person's credit can be ruined by a divorce, a housing market crash, medical issues, or many other life events," he says. "A brief look at a person's credit history may end up with a company not hiring a very responsible person -- someone who just happened to get hit by life's circumstances."
Fair or unfair, many employers are using credit reports as a hiring factor, just the same. It all really depends on which state the company - and the job-seeker - reside.
"Credit reports vary widely by state, when it comes to with what rights the employee has versus what methods an employer can use in order to gain information," notes Valerie Streif, a senior advisor with The Mentat, a San Francisco-based organization that helps individuals land good jobs.
Yet those same credit checks were never originally intended to be used as hiring benchmarks.
"Credit reports should be used for their intended purpose - lending money," says Shasta Erickson, principal at helpdeskHR, LLC, in Austin. "The use of credit for everything from insurance rates to employment perpetuates the problem by creating disadvantages to those who can least afford them."
Erickson's question for her clients who want to run credit checks is simple: Why?
"Unless it is directly related to the job that they are performing or required for a particular industry, what is the purpose?" she asks. "Obtaining consumer reports is an extra expense, it adds time to the hiring process, it can cause stress on the applicant, and it opens up the employer for potential discrimination charges by protected classes -- age, disability, race, religion, national origin, sex, color."
Erickson's advice to her clients is to give the disclosure of intent to run consumer credit reports up front but wait to obtain these reports until after a conditional offer of employment has been presented. Then, give the applicant the chance to explain any negative information that might show up.
"There could be mistakes," she says. "Credit issues can be caused by unemployment or underemployment. Did the applicant fall on hard times and run up debt, medical bills, etc.? If an employer decides not to hire based on credit, without asking for an explanation, they could be missing out on a great employee."
"And if they don't follow the legal procedures, they could be breaking the law," she adds.
The good news is that fewer companies are using credit reports as hiring guidelines.
"Surveys conducted across various industries suggest that most employers don't use credit reports in their hiring process," Streif says. "By law, a company must get your written permission/authorization before requesting a credit report, and in many cases, the job seeker must also get the opportunity to make any corrections to those reports."
The primary motivation by employers who conduct credit checks is to make sure that the potential employee isn't a financial risk - most times they are looking for any signs that the candidate has been involved with theft or embezzlement, Streif says. "If your record other than your credit score is clean and you have a lot of strengths and assets to add to the company, it shouldn't affect your chances of being hired."
Some companies say otherwise, and until more states tackle the credit report and job-seeker problem, good employment opportunities remain at risk, all due to a lousy credit report.