and we’re going to strip-search you before the job interview

A reader writes:

After filling out an online application, I received an email from the (large and well-known) employer asking that I return to their career website to provide my date of birth, social security number, and driver’s license number. They added that they will only use the information to begin a background check if I were to receive and accept a job offer from them.

Is it weird for a company to ask me for this information and consent (permission to do background check) before even a phone interview or any preliminary step like that? Maybe I am paranoid or maybe it’s just that I’ve never had any organization ask for this immediately upon applying before, but it kinda seems like doing things out of order to me — like if they wanted to do a credit check on me when I’m one of five final candidates, fine — but just for applying?

It’s not unheard of — I’ve occasionally had other readers tell me it’s happened to them too — but I think it’s rude and in poor form to ask for it at this stage, and also unnecessary.

It illustrates yet again the frustrating power dynamics that job seekers face in an economy like this. Because really, why should you subject yourself to unnecessary and invasive practices like this? But when you are out of work and looking for a job, need often trumps principle, and understandably so. We should all care, though, that some companies ask people to choose between being considered for a job or standing up for privacy and common sense.

I do think you could simply say you don’t provide information like that at this stage, because of concerns about identity theft and the practically universal advice not to release such information until an employment relationship has been created or is imminent. But you have no way of knowing whether the person who would receive that note from you is (a) logical and reasonable or (b) a bureaucrat who cares about procedure above all else.

Which leaves you back where you started, having to decide whether you’re willing to subject yourself to unreasonable and unsettling demands in order to be considered for a job there. All before you’re even interviewed.

This kind of thing is terrible for employees, and — assuming you agree that it’s in employers’ best interest to treat good people well, because even if they don’t have many options in today’s economy, they will some day — it’s not good for employers either.

{ 25 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    Wow – just…. wow.

    These big companies are truly the epitome of 'checking the done box'.

    Is there any reason the company's name can't be shown?

  2. Adam*

    Yeah, if I were the letter writer in an ideal setting I'd probably focus my energies elsewhere, but when you're desperate…

  3. Anonymous*

    This practice has happened to me too, but in a different form.

    I went online to a prospective employers career portal to apply for a job. I couldn't even submit my application without providing my social security number and drivers license number. The portal wouldn't let me, because "all fields marked with an asterisk are mandatory." and of course the fields for the SS# and license# were asterisked.

  4. Camellia*

    I would wonder if I had been redirected to a site set up to steal that information. If I truly wanted to apply to the company I would try to reach someone in HR to see if their site really required this info.

  5. Unemployed Gal*

    I�m curious for what position or industry the OP was applying. I know that in retail, it�s pretty common to provide social security or driver�s license numbers along with a background check consent up front. I�ve applied to dozens of stores this year, and I got over the sense of �violation� long ago. I would assume that industries that receive applicants �in bulk� like retail would need to prescreen just to save time in recruitment. I�d rather have a potential employer run criminal histories before selecting interview candidates. They can only interview so many, and I�d hate to get bumped from the interview short list for someone who lied about a felony.

    There�s also a chance that the employer will never use the information. True story: I accepted a seasonal retail position over the holidays. (Hey, three months of minimum wage beats a poke in the eye.) With less than a month left of my gig, my boss called me in to complete my application and paperwork again. HR had lost all of the originals and never verified anything. (Fortunately, payroll still knew I was an employee.) I could�ve been an ex-con with a fake resume, and still worked there for two months.

  6. Anonymous*

    I wonder if employers do this as a way of 'weeding out' applicants that aren't really that serious about the job. If people who are only vaguely interested in the job balk at providing such personal data, that's fewer resumes for HR to sort through to find the people who are really keen (and qualified).

    If I were one of the very keen and qualified for the job, such demands would probably make me decidedly less keen to work for that employer. I don't believe any company is adequately equipped to protect the identity of every single applicant from identity theft and misuse from now until the end of time. And an employer that has such invasive policies for complete strangers probably has much worse policies for people who make it past that stage.

  7. TigerTrails*

    I agree with Unemployed Gal. I'm also looking for work constantly, and nearly every on-line application asks these questions. It seems to be a standard now. Again, it probably helps with pre-screening. Also, if you do get a job offer, you can start working that much sooner, because they already have most of your information.

    If a company asks you to send a resume to be considered and applicant, they must have a lot of time on their hands to sort through all that!

  8. Anonymous*

    I completely understand the OP's squeamishness about being asked to provide this information so early on. I am super hyper sensitive about providing my SSN for any reason. I understand providing it for emplyment, but this early on does seem a bit odd.

    But, from another angle, aren't businesses going to get slapped something fierce if they hire someone who's not documented and eligible for work in the US (I'm assuming that this is a situation in the USA). I wonder if this 'requirement' to provide a SSN is just one step in the eligibility process allowing businesses the opportunity to 'screen' and make sure that they are hiring truly employable employees.

    Just a thought.

  9. Anonymous*

    Criminal background and the like I understand. What I don't understand is why they have to check your credit report history in some checks. What does that have to do with a job?

    Yes, to some reading this, I might sound naive, and being new to the workforce, I am with certain things. Hence why I read this blog. Thanks AAM!

  10. Anonymous*

    @Anonymous 7:31:

    I don't think anyone is questioning the need to provide such data AT ALL.

    Merely why an employer needs to collect the data from every single applicant, most of whom will never be considered for a job.

  11. smith17*

    I'm in the UK.

    When you apply for a job, you are asked for your passport, which they photocopy. If you apply direct to an employer, this is generally when you go for an interview. However, if you wish to register with an employment agency, they want your passport at the registration stage. So that means they have your full name, address, date of birth, phone number, National Insurance number, work history, sometimes your next-of-kin. Some also ask for your bank account details as well. (I don't give bank details unless I'm offered a job, but I'm sure a lot of people don't think twice.) If you think of all the people who register with these places, there must be thousands of copies of all these details floating around. I went to a 'hotel and catering' job fair some time ago. There were probably a hundred potential applicants lined up (and that was just in the hour or so that I was there). Everyone was clutching their passport, and we all filled in a full application form and our passports was copied. Over the two-day fair, there must have been hundreds? thousands? of those details – and everyone's signature of course.

    Forgers could copy the passports, complete with all the numbers and dates they contain, and provide someone with all the important information about the (real) holder's life.

    If there was ever a template for identity theft, I think this is it.

  12. Karen*

    I actually encountered an online job application that asked for these things right at the outset…but what REALLY bothered me was that it was not a secure site (no assurances of security, no "lock symbol" or Verisign or whatever). It looked super shady, so I didn't even want to risk it.

  13. CK*

    In response to Unemployed Gal's comment about retail…

    Yes, you're right. Right out of college, I worked in retail management and we had to pre-screen all applicants with a background check. If the application didn't have their social security number on it, it was filed away and the candidate had no hope of landing a job.

    I really hated doing that and I think it's a crappy business practice. I think it's better to wait until the candidate has been through interviews and is being seriously considered for employment before running them through the background check mill. And when it's just an application for a sales associate who's going to be working 8-16 hours per week, seriously? Forget the background check. Using it for management should be just fine.

  14. Unemployed Gal*

    @CK: You�d really rather find out that your top candidate is a lying criminal after you�ve wasted time interviewing her? Sure, retail recruitment is a relatively short process, but it still takes time to schedule and perform interviews. That�s time away from running the business, and time that you could�ve spent interviewing someone with a clean record (or at least an honest disclosure).

    I�m curious what you�d gain by performing the background check after the interviews. I understand that sometimes high volume background checks can be cost prohibitive. But if you can afford to screen everyone first, why not? The time you spend interviewing also has a cost: both the cost of your salary and the lost productivity of your business while you�re interviewing instead of managing.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I would think that simply including the information in the ad would work. “The successful candidate must pass a background check, a credit score check (etc…) It would be a lot cheaper, less invasive and discourage the less desirable candidates.

  15. CK*

    @unemployed gal…
    Yes. It's easier to conduct first-round group interviews with a lot of candidates (this is also common in retail), narrow it down and then do your background check on your final candidates either before or after the final interview, depending on many people you need to hire. I'd rather do 5 background checks than 30. Background checks take time, too- usually 5-10 minutes spent on the phone punching in numbers.

    And *technically* when they fill out the app, there's that little spot that asks if they've ever been convicted of a crime, so you should have a heads up anyway.

  16. Unemployed Gal*

    @CK: Thanks for answering. I can see if it takes almost as long to run background checks as to interview, it would even out.

    As for the �conviction� question on the application, if everyone answered that honestly, we wouldn�t need background checks. I wonder how often the background check catches things that the candidate �forgot� to mention.

  17. Nick*

    There's no point in submitting your information to a company that may not even hire you in the first place; especially if things such as your driving record have nothing to do with the job you are applying for.

  18. Anonymous*

    So, in asking for a birthdate, how does this not constitute age discrimination? Everything indicates you should only be asked for this info after you've accepted the job offer.

  19. CK*

    @Unemployed Gal, I actually never encountered a situation where someone lied on their application (as far as the background check goes). But I'm sure it does happen.

  20. Ask a Manager*

    For me, it comes down to this: Yes, it might be more convenient for companies to demand this information at the outset, even though they won't use it until nearer the end of the process. But just because it's more convenient for them doesn't mean it's right to require it, because it puts applicants in a position they shouldn't be in – with their social security info and other private information all over the place, with companies that may never interview them. It's too much of a privacy violation, one that I don't think is justified by convenience to the company.

  21. Anonymous*

    I applied for a white-collar position at a major trucking company. Because of "DOT rules" (or some process/procedure involving the DOT) I had to fill out a ten-year work/residence history. AT THE APPLICATION STAGE.

    At least I made it to the final interview — otherwise that's way too much to ask applicants to provide.

  22. Unemployed Gal*

    I agree that employers should only request information at the stage that they actually use or verify it, whether it�s for a background check or a reference check. I don�t mind if you use it pre-interview, but if you don�t, don�t ask for it. It only creates more paperwork for the applicants and more information for the employer to protect.

    If you recall my seasonal job example above, I had to complete all the paperwork twice, and they never used my information. My job was over before HR even looked at it. What a waste of everyone�s time. Plus, now two copies of my identity information are floating around the corporate office somewhere between the mailroom and HR.

  23. Leslie*

    I had a note from a company telling me its company policy for me to provide them with that information prior to the interview and they would do an online background check if I were offered a position. While I needed the job, my security comes first. I advised them since I did not have any information about or the name of their company(craigslist) I felt it would be better given at the time of interview. Needless to say, I never heard back.

  24. Diane*

    I’m stuck in online application hell. I can’t go forward without providing my SS and DOB, and if I don’t provide them now, I have to check a box saying I understand I won’t be considered because they can’t do a background check. This is for a freakin’ bank. I am not happy.

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