Thursday, December 13, 2007

Maybe we need to check this?

Apropos of my recent application for federal employment, as well as my debate on the topic with one of our regulars the other night, I find myself thinking a lot about background checks. Such checks are, of course, SOP for all federal jobs nowadays. But they're increasingly a factor in non-federal hiring as well. Indeed, amid the talk of Before and After—that is, before and after 9/11—America's seeming faith in salvation-via-background checks may be the most tangible of the Afters.

In the immediate wake of 9/11, Dean Suposs, a top executive with ADP Screening and Selection Services, the nation's largest pre-employment investigator, described a tremendous growth in demand for his firm's services. The trend continued even after the initial shockwaves from 9/11 had abated: ADP did almost 4.9 million background checks in 2005, a 12 percent increase over the prior year. In a 2004 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, 80 percent of corporate respondents said they now routinely screen all job candidates for criminal histories. Some employers have become pathologically picky not just about whom they hire, but whom they keep. At pharmo-giant Eli Lilly in 2002, this ex post facto screening led to a purge of more than 100 contract workers. Among them was a woman who'd once bounced a $60 check for a refrigerator rental.

On the surface, it's hard to fault any tactic that lowers the odds of, say, an airline filling its baggage-handling vacancies from the ranks of Al Qaeda sleeper cells. And of course, that's how the subject of background checks is invariably framed: striking a blow for peace, justice, and the ongoing right to consume obscene quantities of hot wings and beer. All of which might make perfect sense, if the background-check juggernaut weren't logically suspect, ethically dubious, and as useful for ensuring domestic tranquility as the color-coded threat-level scheme that tells us how paranoid to feel on any given day. Worse, as a cornerstone of today's simplistic backlash against E-ville (as Hedley Lamarr from Blazing Saddles would pronounce it), the nation's unswerving reliance on background checks signals an abandonment of time-honored notions of forgiveness and punitive restraint.

As the breadth of the phenomenon expands, you see, so does its depth. You might not know this, but bankruptcies and even less dire financial problems may render you unsuitable for positions involving money in even the most peripheral sense. (About one-third of all prospective employers now run credit checks on applicants. The more responsible the job, the greater the likelihood of a such a check.) A spotty driving history can preclude employment in any capacity that puts you behind the wheel on company time; some companies even worry about what you do during your commuting time, which of course means they look at the driving records of all prospective employees. HR directors, meanwhile, like to learn what they can about the marital histories and romantic habits of managerial candidates, hoping to avoid messy, Clintonesque scandals.

The inquisition also has spread beyond the 9-to-5 world. Ever-mindful of today's rash of school shootings, and especially on the heels of Virginia Tech, a growing number of colleges deny campus housing to would-be students with any kind of criminal record; click here for a look at the convoluted policy statement of one such college. Mortgage lenders increasingly order more intrusive investigations along with the usual credit profiles. So do many dating services. (Hence, that new ad for that zeroes in on how selective eHarmony can be in welcoming people into its virtual singles community.)

Still, the closer you look, the less convincing are the stipulated goals and probable efficacy of all this snooping. I ask you: What background check protects society against the individual whose first offense consists of strapping a bomb to himself and walking into an Amtrak terminal? A colleague of mine quips archly that all such screening does is "prevent someone who has carried out a suicide mission from ever doing it again." In any case, the bridge between past crime and present catastrophe seems tenuous at best. I have seen no credible evidence that a convicted shoplifter is more likely than anyone else to fly jets into buildings or smuggle an Uzi into the lunchroom at work. (Would you really feel that skittish about having Winona Ryder on your flight?) In fact, some studies suggest that so-called rage killers—those who stab someone 146 times, or take out a room full of coworkers in a horrific orgy of violence—tend to be individuals who, prior to the apocalyptic event, impressed acquaintances as quiet and nonconfrontational. ("He always seemed like such nice, well-mannered guy...") Psychologists theorize that people in this category repress their anger until it boils to a point that compels them to "act out." So maybe the folks we really need to worry about are the overly agreeable, submissive types.

Moreover, this is a topic that focuses one's thoughts on the very nature of crime and criminality. There are valid questions, I think, about whether what we define as "crime" is always worse than some other behaviors that, while legal, nevertheless constitute grave offenses against the social contract. For purposes of predicting which candidate would make a better employee, is a single nonviolent felony really more troubling than a lifelong pattern of using and manipulating others? Which is worse: a boss who once made unwelcome advances to his secretary and got his hand slapped for it? Or some gruff SOB "with issues" who treats everyone like garbage? Which is riskier: having a fellow in shipping-and-receiving who once filched a six-pack and drove his car into a tree? Or having an over-the-top hedonist in the executive office? Clearly background checks would not have saved Enron from the misdeeds of its corporate brass, who arguably did more damage to America than any act of violence except 9/11 itself. (Put aside your preconceptions and ask yourself this: If we're going strictly on the basis of the scope of damage done—which seems like a reasonable way of judging the severity of a crime—why would Scott Peterson get the death penalty before Jeffrey Skilling or Ken Lay?*) Finally, we should not lose sight of the fact that background checks, much like credit files, can include erroneous information that unfairly stigmatizes job candidates.

Even if backgrounds checks can make life more harmonious within any given company, society is left with a serious pragmatic concern: What do we do about the estimated 25 million** Americans (and counting) who fall short of our newfound standards? Explain to me how America as a whole is made safer by denying its most marginal citizens work, housing, credit, education, even mates.

The U.S. prison population set an all-time record in 2006, with some 7 million adults under lock and key. An additional 5 million Americans, give or take, are either on parole or on probation. Justice Department figures tell us that one in 20 Americans will spend some portion of their lifetime behind bars. For males, that probability approaches one in 10. For minority males, one in five.

That's an awful lot of us who may end up serving the equivalent of a life sentence for things like bouncing a $60 check.

* I need to be clear here: One of the few issues in life about which I am vehement is my opposition to capital punishment. (I go with Mario Cuomo on this one: Government should not be in the business of elevating mankind's most base impulses to the status of law.) I'm just making a point. Again, looking at things strictly in terms of the scope of the damage to society, I think there are many crimes (even many nonviolent ones) that are "worse" than a single episode of homicide.
** That figure counts only those who've been physically incarcerated. According to one 2004 Wall Street Journal article, there are at least 46 million Americans with criminal records, including those who copped pleas or otherwise did not do actual jail time.


Mary Anne said...

Here is a subject near and dear to my heart-bqckground checks! 9/11 has just been used as an the "reasoning" behind background checks, but they go back much further. The Internet has A LOT to do with this. Background checks are actually used as as a "legal" way of weeding people out of positions. The first thing done to an applicant is they get "Googled," which means the employer looks at your "history" on the Net. I thank God EVERY day my name is so boring, because it takes MAJOR work to find me on the Net. If your name is more exotic, you better pray whatever you did in college does not come back to bite you in the ass. Employers do not even have to give you a reason in most cases why you failed to get the job, or in some cases fire you. I just got a low-wage part-time job and my employer said to me, "I couldn't Google you." I basically got the job, because the other applicants did not have "acceptable" Internet findings.

Akhetnu said...

I have been concerned about the paranoia, suspicion, and obsession over security that fuels a drive to more and more draconian laws, and intrusion and stigmatizing of people's lives.

I have also been disconcerted with the consumerism, hedonism, and relativism that I see in society, and your book seemed to tie alot of it together with the self-help movement. It was quite enlightening.

I'm speculating here, but is it possible that the attitude (helped along by the self-help industry) that people have the right to 'feel good' each and every minute, has fueled this drive of safety-and-security-at-any-cost?

Cal said...

It's a sad day when people aren't allowed to make mistakes anymore, or are only allowed to make certain kinds of mistakes.

Your post didn't even get into the discrimination that may happen if there is any way that genetic testing is able to determine a person's susceptibility to certain kinds of diseases. And if that information is someone how "available" to employers or others. There will have to be a Medical Freeze Act that is comparable to the credit freezes that consumers can now request.

Steve Salerno said...

Very good points, all. And thanks for the kind words on the book, Akhetnu.

As for boring vs. exotic names, I know this is slightly off-theme but there's also a "Steve Salerno" who is a jazz musician (and I was a jazz musician in my first life) and a "Steve Salerno" who is an artist; in fact we used to get each other's checks for a while when we were both freelancing for the New York Times. And for many years, if you looked me up on Amazon, along with the books I'd actually written, you'd get a list of the books he'd illustrated.

Cosmic Connie said...

This is definitely a subject near and dear to my heart too. Where does an employer's right to protection end, and intrusiveness begin?

Cal brought up another disturbing aspect of the privacy issue: medical information. Like an individual's credit history, medical history has become a salable product, and just about anyone can buy it for the right price. (Or, as has happened all too frequently of late, this sensitive information can be stolen.)

Existing medical privacy laws in the US seem to have dubious benefits for the average patient/consumer. It can be difficult or nearly impossible for individuals to get updates on a hospitalized loved one's condition (especially by phone), but marketers or potential employers can easily buy the most intimate data and use it just about any way they want. Sure, there are laws in place to restrict the usage, but apparently these laws aren't very effective.

Cal's original point about people being "punished" for their genetic makeup is truly disturbing -- and probably worthy of a whole other blog post.

Regarding employment background checks: It is, as Akhetnu might say, disconcerting to realize that these days, even minor mistakes or misdeeds can and will be held against the average person in perpetuity. On the other hand (since Akhetnu brought up the self-help angle), how about some of those successful SHAM artists and New-Wage gurus who have become filthy rich off of herds of followers who DON'T question their backgrounds? These jokers get away with phony credentials and all kinds of other lies about their backgrounds. They perpetrate these falsehoods either to hide a shady (or even criminal) past, or simply to increase their credibility. And they get away with it. Doesn't seem fair somehow...

Then again, these folks have a singular advantage over the average working stiff: their moneymaking potential is generally not at the mercy of a conventional employer or government entity. Unless they are actually breaking a law, they are relatively free to exploit the credulity/gullibility of their target market.

Still, some of these folks get away with some pretty sleazy things, and it really doesn't seem right.

Back to the privacy issue: If things were really fair, all sensitive personal information -- credit history, medical records, etc. -- would be unavailable to marketers or employers by default. In other words, it would be made available on an opt-IN basis (with the consumer or patient being the one to make that decision). I believe this was the intent behind the current medical privacy laws in the US, yet it seems the system is still stacked in favor of those who have the bucks and the motivation to buy the information, or the computer smarts and access to steal it.(For that matter, why do consumers generally have to PAY to get their own credit history? It's their friggin' credit history!)

Wait... I think I'm rambling again...

Cal said...

I know when I first started reading this blog, I looked up "Steve Salerno" on Youtube and found a clip of a jazz musician playing with his group at a club. The clip was very dark, so I couldn't make out the person. I just thought it was you.

It made me wonder how you had time to do all of this. I'm glad you cleared this up that it is a different person.

Steve Salerno said...

You may ramble, Connie, but it's all good...

A Voice of Sanity said...

... why would Scott Peterson get the death penalty before Jeffrey Skilling or Ken Lay?

Why was he convicted at all? No evidence of guilt was ever offered - all they proved was that he committed adultery. More than sufficient evidence was offered that he could NOT have been involved and that some other person was guilty - and yet he was convicted.

mikecane said...

>>>Mortgage lenders increasingly order more intrusive investigations along with the usual credit profiles.

Uh, no. Nope. Never did happen.

Do you have any idea of the depth of this yet? It is probably the largest fraud ever perpetrated. Talk about SHAM!

Background checks? For *primary* corporate *employees*, maybe. But do you think Joe Temp Agency will bother much? Possibly only with messengers who require bonding. For word processors? Ha!

Steve Salerno said...

Mike, I can go only on the basis of what is reported to me (or released for public consumption) by the people in the trenches. When SHRM says that four-fifths of companies are doing the checks, who am I to quibble? (And they're not the only source on the data.) I know for a fact that background checks in college--either for students or faculty--were unheard-of prior to 9/11. The campus has (or had) always been the last bastion of libertarianism, though that ethic is, of course, selectively applied when it comes to more conservative-minded thinking. And I also know, both anecdotally and through research, that dating services have gotten much more active in this area.

What are you using as the basis for your counterarguments here?

Steve Salerno said...

Incidentally, apropos of your mention of "primary" son twice had to undergo background checks for a career in fast food--and we're talking "would you like fries with that?", not running the franchise. This was a few years ago, and I don't remember which fast-food companies they were, but I'll find out.

mikecane said...

Having not, thank god, swum in the job pool for some years now (since pre-9/11), maybe things have changed drastically. The worse I went through -- and I resented it deeply! -- was having to *prove* my citizenship because our government couldn't prevent illegal immigration. But during that time, I worked via temp agencies of all sorts (from lowly WP up to full consultancy) and the only time I got background screened was when I was a primary employee of a large corp (and based on what I was told by the people contacted, the screening was pretty lousy). As a temp/consultant, never.

This begins to make me wonder if we'll now have an increase in the consultancy population simply because people can't get an A-OK from these screens.

Fast food handlers screened? Well, that's a primary corporate employee, no matter how low-level. Do I think it ridiculous? Yep. If such employees should be screened for anything, it should be for hepatitis!

mikecane said...

Oh, and the other point I was making was: look at the lack of screening for something as important and big as a home mortgage! There's the primary-vs-temp distancing too. As long as the Big Guys could bundle together those loans to offload on the Next Greater Sucker, they didn't care.

What is happening in this country is just plain frightening. We're turning into one big Con Game.

Mary Anne said...

Mike Cane said:
"Background checks? For *primary* corporate *employees*, maybe. But do you think Joe Temp Agency will bother much? Possibly only with messengers who require bonding. For word processors? Ha!"

The background check itself does not bother me as much as the "Google" or search engine checks. I had my first background/credit check in 1996, when I left the entertainment industry for corporate America. I was just an assistant to a corporate banking suit. They have progressively become more common and more indepth.

I get more upset about the judgemental quality of these checks. Does what I do on Saturday night, reflect how competent I am for the job? Does who I vote for have anything to do with my job?

It has become increasingly more common to "spy" on workers via the Internet and make judgements that have NOTHING to do with the job.

Now the flip side of all this is how we are now taught to look into others backgrounds. Steve mentioned Internet dating sites and we are told to do check out our potential dates via the Internet with most of these sites.

Its all very catch 22. You're dammed if you do and dammed if you don't.

Mary Anne said...

Steve, you might have written this blog too soon. Wikipedia Foundation hired Carolyn Bothwell Doran without doing a background check and she became the COO of the foundation. It has been brought to light that she has a lengthy criminal history. I guess Wiki didn't get the memo about doing background checks. Here is the AP story link via ABC:

D. said...

I ran into an interesting case of this recently as a dance teacher at a college. I work as a contractor, and had been for a couple of years when the college decided to do background checks. I receieved the paperwork and told them I was fine with the criminal background, but would not sign anything releasing credit background checks or any other background checks. An interesting side note - I worked for a couple of years as a PI so I used to do this myself! I told them that since as a dance teacher I wasn't handling money, this was over the top. After going back to their attorneys, they agreed and only required the criminal background check. Then I decided to apply for a job as a personal trainer at a health club - same thing, only more extensive. The release form would allow your neighbors to be interviewed, for them to go through your trash, as well as a do a financial background check. My opinion is that I'm not taking a loan nor am I handling any money, but this company is going to owe ME money, so they should release THEIR financial records to prove they can cover my paychecks (ha!). Anyway, I told them I wanted my lawyer to review this paperwork before I would sign it, and the company refused to send it to him. They also refused to return my attorneys calls - and mine - after they agreed to hire me. My opinion is that these kinds of background checks are 1) discrimination - but interestingly you will see that, at least in MY state, a company cannot discriminate for gender and race and age etc. - BUT there is NOTHING disallowing discrimating against someone because of their economic or social class, which is what I believe demanding financial information would fall under. 2) It violates our Bill of Rights re: unwarranted search and seizure. I called my state rep and and a couple of other depts., and everyone agrees they think it's wrong/illegal but there's no way to tackle it except to file expensive lawsuits. I disagree. There has to be a way. Any ideas? I'm game to go after this...

Steve Salerno said...

This is an interesting case study you present here, D. As I think you realize, you took this much, much further than most people will; most folks just fall back into the sheep mode and go with the program.

I really don't know what can be done. Fighting this mentality is definitely a case of going against the grain in today's post-9/11, if-you're-not-part-of-the-solution-you're-part of-the-problem world. There is some legislative relief afoot in some quarters, as more liberal-minded lawmakers realize that eventually we're going to make it impossible for just about everything to find a job; there are some compassionate souls in government who understand that you can't penalize someone forever for one "slip-up." I like to think (or hope) that this is just one of those periodic overcorrections, and the pendulum will swing back. BUT, what really concerns me--even more than the government--is the Internet. We have reached the point where just about anybody can get into anybody else's business. How do you contain that?

rc said...

Thanks for writing on this, Steve. It is a much broader topic than it appears to be at first sight and it also has wider implications than are immediately apparent. These checks are too rarely discussed and it seems to be generally assumed that no reasonable person could have reservations about them.

A number of the problems have been touched on above, but it seems to me that some of the points are worth restating and emphasizing. A great problem is the way in which old mistakes cannot be left behind. People are penalized a second time for things they may have been already punished for and are not given a second chance. One story, which I unfortunately don't have a link for, is that of a New Zealand cab driver who had been convicted a number of decades ago for having sex with his underage girlfriend. He later married her and had a family. Then, a few years ago, New Zealand brought in a law that sex offenders could not drive cabs, so of course he lost his job. This is an extreme case (I hope), but is clear danger with this sort of checking. Old crimes will come back to haunt people even when they have wiped the slate clean. In relation to sex-crime related checks the rather hysterical reaction in Britain to a claimed pedophile plague has apparently been having significant effects on general behaviour (people are scared of being labelled pedophiles and so are much warier around children)and also on businesses (some contractors refuse to do work on school properties because they need to reclear the workers for every job). Quite an interesting seminar on this is available at

Another aspect is how these checks can be misused to control people's behaviour, e.g. where checks are periodically administered or can be re-administered at an organization's discretion. This can be used to try to regulate people's entire lives by those with authority either because of their prejudices or simply because they enjoy controlling or manipulating people. A darker and more sadistic version of this is the (illicit) practice that apparently occurred some years ago in security vetting where some polygraph operators asked female applicants humiliating questions about their sex lives. These uses of security checking to satisfy the darker sides of human nature are rarely adequately discussed and a lot of routine, but unnecessary, lesser humiliations probably occur as a result.

On the medical side, I suspect that a number of people do not seek treatment for conditions such as depression for fear that these will show up on such a check.

A less commented on effect of checks is their potential to homogenize the type of person in an organization. The checking process may weed out people who are dissimilar in attitudes or backgrounds to those who already work there. (This was in fact a concern raised by one of the senior officers in the early CIA - I don't know how seriously it was taken.)

I don't think there is any doubt that, although some checks are needed, they are, in general, far too widely used and are excessively intrusive. Perhaps this is partly in fear of litigation if something goes wrong, but I suspect it is also due to bureaucratic empire building (often using 9/11 as a convenient excuse) and occasionally to the nastier side of human nature (be it censorious, controlling, or simply sadistic). Whatever the cause, they too often are far too invasive, probably ineffective in many cases, waste too many resources, and create too much needless anxiety.

Steve Salerno said...

These are excellent observations, RC, and I think you for taking the time to comment at such length. I have heard many stories like that of the NZ cab driver. Combine this with the ubiquitous appearance of "security cameras" in public (and many private) areas and the general mood of Christian-right-inspired repressiveness that has swept over the U.S. in recent years, and you have a truly worrisome situation--perhaps worse than even Orwell foresaw.

D. said...

Actually, the background check services companies are receiving are a bit of scam in and of themselves in that they are not getting what they think they are getting (and paying for). Criminal background checks, for example, are never fully extensive. There is no nation-wide data base available to a private investigative company to access. What usually happens is the company looks up your previous addresses only, and checks with the cops and courts in those towns/counties. So, if you lived in Dallas but robbed someone and was arrested in Houston, that might not show up. Or if you lived in Houston, but went on vacation to Miami and partied too hard (woo-hoo!), got yourself into a bit of a fiasco with cocaine and hookers, and were arrested/charged, that likely would not come to light either. Also, quite frankly, an employer can do background checks on their own for cheap without hiring an outside company. Any one of us, depending on the state, can go down to the police station and file a request for a criminal background check on someone. A company's HR person could do that without outsourcing it. Also, the HR person technically could go through your trash themselves, because once trash is left on the curb off personal property, it's fair game for anyone to pilfer through.

cara said...

I'm shocked that you would compare the collapse of Enron to 9/11. Three thousand people DIED on 9/11. At Enron, people were left without retirement plans - and even the most critical of Jeff Skilling's critics do not blame him for that. Terrible, awful murderous (and televised) death vs. deflated retirement plans? Your analogy is way, way over the line.

Steve Salerno said...

Cara, you're not the only person who takes umbrage at some of my analogies and parallels. I respect your opinion. I do think I should point out, however--just for the sake of accuracy--that I said background checks "would not have saved Enron from the misdeeds of its corporate brass, whose misdeeds arguably did more damage to America than any act of violence except 9/11 itself" [emphasis added]. So, technically, I am not saying that Enron was "as bad as" 9/11.

However, I concede what I think is your larger point: In fact, I don't think murder, per se, is necessarily worse than certain other crimes, as odd as that may sound. You are correct in that accusation. It depends on the overall impact of the respective crimes.