can I push back on an extensive pre-employment check?

A reader writes:

I’m in the final stages of interviewing for a position that I really want. I credit this in large part to your blog! They are flying me down sometime next week for a day-long marathon.

Prior to that, I’ve been asked to complete a pre-employment inquiry release, which basically is a “consumer report” about me — everything from criminal record, credit history, education, references, driving record, etc.

Not that they will find anything negative, but I’m a little leery about sharing all of this information without an offer. Do you have any recommendations of how to handle this? Is it a red flag to them if I push back?

If they’re like most places, they’re not going to check this stuff until they’ve decided that they want to make you an offer. They’re just getting permission now so that they don’t have to come back to you for it later. But they’re not actually planning to check it until later in the process, because there’s no point in engaging in such a time-intensive process until they know they want to hire you.

There’s no real reason to get your permission before they’re at the point of actually starting the check (or knowing for sure that they’ll be doing one on you), but loads of companies do. Hell, some of them require you to give permission for all those checks in order to simply submit an initial application.

You can find out if this is the case with this company by saying something like, “I’m glad to sign the release for this now, but I like to give my references a heads-up if they’re going to be contacted. Will you be contacting them now, or is this for later on if we get to the offer stage?”

Or, if you actually don’t want to give permission at all at this stage, you can say, “I generally prefer to wait until we’re closer to the offer stage before authorizing this. I’d be glad to do it then.” Some employers will be fine with that and some won’t (especially if they’re particularly bureaucratic HR folks), but it’s reasonable to say.

{ 57 comments… read them below }

  1. Just a Reader*

    I went through this level of background check for my current job. It was invasive, uncomfortable, even violating. But I wanted the job and it has been so worth it. Also, the culture here doesn’t reflect the fact that I had to pass every test but a cavity search to get hired.

    If you’re in final stages and you really want the job, I’d do it.

  2. Anonymous*

    I’m in the financial industry and it’s impossible to avoid these sorts of checks. I, in fact, request and review them. Candidates are typically declined for ‘bad’ debt (owing more than $10k without a payment plan in place; it’s ridiculous, for who doesn’t owe $10k) or for having a felony ‘conviction’ in the criminal history. More and more, we’ve been lenient in drug related matters; finance-related is an automatic no-go.

    Anyway, I ignore most of details in the reports, particularly the ‘he said, she said’ malarkey from prior places of employment, unless, of course they refer to some suggestion of money mishandling, etc.

    1. Joey*

      You do know that with few exceptions you shouldnt automatically disqualify those with felonies right? Since automatically doing so almost always will have an adverse impact on minorities. Generally you have to show that because of the nature and proximity of the conviction the person can’t be trusted to perform that job.

      1. Anonymous*

        On the other hand, in looking at the admin staff (as opposed to the sales staff) in our three offices, I’d say 95%+ are women or members of a minority group who, unlike the sales staff, must not only undergo the background checks as described above, but must also submit to an FBI fingerprinting check.

      2. Jessa*

        For some financial jobs particularly at banks there’s federal regulations about background. Some people were even temporarily let go when the new laws came into effect for stuff that happened 30 years ago when they were younger. The banks had to apply for waivers. Some will do that for a long term employee but not for someone applying for a job.

    2. Dorothy*

      That worries me that your company ignoring drug-related matters; aren’t drugs and gambling major reasons people get into financial straits and consider stealing?

        1. CEMgr*

          No need to guess. Statistics show that illicit drug use, including marijuana alone, is strongly correlated with the commission of crime.

          OTOH, marijuana use is also associated with a reduced desire to use violence. Every person should be treated as an individual.

          1. businesslady*

            time to strike up the band for that old standard, “correlation does not imply causation.”

            I do know that desperate people in the throes of drug addiction may turn to theft if they’re otherwise unable to procure more of the substance their body is craving. but I’ve never seen any stats that indicate marijuana is among the drugs that have that effect.

          2. Joey*

            Interesting. Im just speculating, but does it have something to do with the rationalization that everybody commits small crimes and that small crimes therefore aren’t that bad? I’ve found this to be the case when I’ve fired people who’ve committed acts such as minor theft.

          3. Melissa*

            Those are descriptive statistics, and are described incorrectly by the outlets that use them.

            Percentages can’t tell you whether a certain group is more likely to do something; they can’t even tell you whether a certain group membership is associated with something. All they do is describe the population at a specific point in time. In all of these sources, there are indicators that the percentage of drug users who are involved in some sort of crime is higher than the percentage of non-drug users involved in some sort of crime, but that’s not even correlation. It could be that the differences are just by chance of that particular year or who they surveyed.

            Furthermore, descriptive statistics like these don’t enable to control for frequency of use and other factors. It lumps in poor marijuana users with rich marijuana users; people with histories of violent crime with people with no history; and in the case of the first link, multi-drug users with users of a single drug. A person who smokes a joint one Saturday a month is very different from a person who is dependent upon cocaine. Lastly, you can’t extrapolate from national level statistics to individual behavior; that’s called an ecological fallacy.

            The other problem with this is that because smoking marijuana IS a crime, of course illict drug use is correlated with crime – it is by its very definition crime.

            But even with all of that, still only 1.6% of people who used illicit drugs in the last year were booked for larceny, meaning that over 98% of people who use illicit drugs haven’t been arrested for stealing anything.

      1. Anonymous*

        Actually, so far, the adverse effect, if at all, would fall on White men, as they comprise almost 100% of our potential recruits and hires. Our sales jobs are commission-based and I suspect, though cannot prove, that such an income stream deters women and members of minorities.

        Yes, I do know that drug-related matters in the general population would disproportionately impact minorities. Wasn’t it William Bennett, Bush Sr’s drug czar, who eschewed penalizing users as much as sellers because he didn’t want to be the one to ‘put his friends’ and neighbor’s kids in jail?’

        As far as ‘discounting’ drug related matters, it really matters what the issues were.

        1. Joey*

          What’s interesting in my wife’s case (surgical sales) is that companies significantly hire more white sales people. This is in a very diverse metropolitan area with a large number of qualified minorities and an above average number of minority clients. In fact, minorities are the majority in my city yet, the sales force is predominantly white, at least in the medical sales field. Although I suspect that’s more because the hiring managers are typically based in areas where there are significantly fewer minorities. Its still exists even though some people don’t believe it.

    3. Anon*

      Okay I’m confused. What constitutes a payment plan….?

      If I have 7k in CC debt, 10K in a car loan, and 70k in student loans am I good? Or is that over the 10k?

      Or would I be passed up for hiring if I had 11k in CC debt but no other debt?

      Or is it just if I’ve defaulted on 10k (Okay this is a bigger deal and I could see being leery)

      1. Anonymous*

        Is the debt overdue/past due/written off? That’s what renders it ‘bad debt.’ Just simply owing money is insufficient.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        I think the key part is the payment plan. Do you have a payment plan for each and are you meeting the agreed payments?

        1. Anonymous*

          Oh, I forgot liens; they’re hugely important. They matter more than simple ‘bad debt.’ And for sure you’d need an explanation as to how you plan on settling it.

    4. fposte*

      Does that mean that people with mortgages and car loans had to prove that they were paying, then?

      1. Anonymous*

        If the creditors reported them as past due then yes. I should clarify that $15k in ‘bad debt’ is the cutoff, whether or not you have a plan. It’s harsh.

        1. Lynn Whitehat*

          But you can understand the purpose, for the financial industry, right? Someone with a mountain of bad debt and no legitimate way of paying it might be tempted to steal.

          1. Anonymous*

            In 2013, what would you consider a mountain of debt? I think $15k is peanuts. You? Also, I’m inclined to believe that people are more likely to steal to avoid going into default than to get out of it. Once they’re in default, c’est la vie.

            1. Melissa*

              $15,000 in *BAD* debt (as in, debt that is over 30-90 days past due and may be in collections) is a lot.

        2. Another Emily*

          $15k in debt is below the average in Canada. The average!

          I can understand why the financial industry would avoid employees with bad debt. Not because they’d be tempted to steal (you never know who would be tempted), but because bad debt could suggest bad money management.

          1. Sue*

            Or perhaps a death in the family or a job loss or a fire in one’s home or huge medical bills due to cancer. Think before you post that people are A dishonest or B irresponsible shall we?

    5. Sue*

      As a 30 plus year accounting professional I find the whole issue of a credit check to be ridiculous. Just because someone fell on hard times doesn’t automatically make them more likely to be a thief and likewise just because someone has great credit doesn’t make them have good morals. One should have nothing to do with each other period.

      1. JenTheNiceHRGirl*

        A lot of my candidates express concern about a credit check, which we do not do here, but apparently some employers do. I think that a lot of otherwise great people suffered during the difficult economy and have some things on their credit that they are not so proud of. If we credit checked all of our candidates, we would probably lose out on some good people

        1. Sue*

          Yep. I worked for Caterpillar as a manager in accounting years ago. When I relocated I went to one of their dealership and I had three interviews for jobs that A: I knew how to do without one second of training B: I was totally perfect for since I knew the product and I knew the accounting systems already.

          By that time I had gotten hit with the economy. All three interviews resulted in my credit being checked later that day and by early the next morning I got a call saying “thanks but no thanks”

          VERY shortsighted on the companies part.


    I remember being asked for my ss # in the very beginning of the process which I did not give them. They then sent me this massive “let’s see if you fit” questionnaire. I decided after seeing their job posting over and over and over in the time frame of months that I would not continue the process.

      1. Anon*

        What do you do when the only way to apply is online and the online form requires a SS# (and specifically says not to enter all 000’s etc)?

        I have a friend who’s been out of work for years and he won’t apply to several large companies because this is the case.

        1. Jamie*

          I haven’t been on the market in years – and when I was looking this never came up for me.

          It has come up for my kids on paper applications for retail and such, and I tell them to leave it blank. If it was electronic and they couldn’t procede without entering and it wouldn’t take all zeros I’d tell them not to apply. You don’t just hand out your SS number without knowing how it’s protected and where it’s going.

        2. Joey*

          Take it as a sign that they probably don’t keep up with technology. Most systems these days don’t use SS numbers to identify applicants. Most use a randomly generated applicant number for this very reason. Some still may ask for last 4 of your ss, but usually the older systems still require a full ss.

      2. Julie*

        Me neither. That (SSN) would be my main concern about giving approval for a background check too early in the process. I don’t ever give it out if I can help it.

        1. Anonymous*

          We use it to generate username/password for the candidate to access their online application. Once they submit the application, we send it out to a 3rd party background checking company. This only happens after a first interview based on the submission of a resume, so it’s the second phase really of the process. Sometimes, however, the credit check alone is a pre-condition to moving to the second phase if the candidate voluntarily reveals debt issues.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            But why not use something else to generate the login info? It doesn’t have to be something that many people are wary of giving out when it’s not actually needed, because of identify theft concerns. And when you reach the stage where you actually do need it, you can ask for it then.

            1. Anonymous*

              I used to use a dummy SSN but the company nixed that idea. So far, I’ve not known anyone to say ‘no’ to the SSN request, nor even to the DOB request to do a credit only check.

              1. VintageLydia*

                The job market being what it is, even good job seekers can get desperate and override their good sense in the name of getting their bills (hopefully) paid. Doesn’t mean employers are right to exploit that and require something like the SSN right at the beginning.

                I sure hope your company’s data security rivals Fort Knox and that none of these numbers are retained for candidates who didn’t make the cut.

            2. JenTheNiceHRGirl*

              We have an area on the application for the SS# but I just tell people to go ahead and leave it blank and I can call them later and get it from them. I need it to do the background check, but I don’t need it up front. I would assume this is the way with most employers and that simply taking that field off the form or making it a field that isn’t mandatory would be the easiest thing to do. Most people feel more comfortable about giving me this info over the phone than e-mail or the internet anyway. Identity theft is just so common and you can never be too safe.

        1. Jamie*

          Not to mention bad practice if you want a good candidate pool.

          Because a lot of people with options are going to self-select right out of that.

          1. Portia de Belmont*

            You can be certain that people will stop the process cold if the early application phase is too invasive. I spent nearly two years untangling a client’s business matters after he was the victim of identity theft. No SSN until the very end of the process!

  4. EC*

    It’s likely the specific language required by FCRA statute on the form. Our auth forms are similarly worded per FCRA and come from the screening vendor who runs the screens.

  5. Anonymous*

    As someone who is in the background screening industry, the background search is just a matter of protocol for most positions these days. I wouldn’t return the release for the consumer report back to your interviewer until an offer is made if it makes you uncomfortable doing so, but you might get some backlash on that from HR, especially if the screening is what they will be using to determine your hiring status, although AAM is correct, you generally won’t get that release until they are sure they want to hire you, but you never know, and if you really want the job, I would just do it to show good faith.

    1. Julie*

      What do you mean about showing good faith? Why would you need to do that, and how would providing your SSN accomplish it?

  6. JenTheNiceHRGirl*

    We get the approval for a background check and reference check once we have done an initial interview and are interested in moving them forward; however we don’t actually enter into the expensive and time-consuming process of this until we are pretty certain we want to make someone an offer. Now I have had maybe 2 people in my entire career who wouldn’t sign the form until they had an official job offer. In those cases, I simply told the candidates that all job offers are contingent upon these results coming back acceptable… so basically, “official” job offer or not, if something comes back in the background check process that would disqualify someone from a position, then we can rescind the job offer. We haven’t ever had to do that thankfully, but I guess it could happen. The more common thing that I encounter are people who don’t want to give me their SS# until we are ready to do the check and that is fine, I just tell them to sign the form anyway and leave the SS# area blank, and then I call them and get the info before I order the background check. If a candidate doesn’t feel comfortable with something, I first go back and explain the process to them again just to make sure that they understand who I am going to call, when I am going to call them, and what kind of information we are looking for in a background check for criminal convictions. With the types of jobs I fill in my line of work, there are certain criminal convictions that would make them unable to safely perform their job. Usually once I go over everything again, candidates feel better … or they fess up about something that I could potentially learn about. So I would say that if you are a candidate who has concerns about a background check, just ask for clarification on what the employer is checking for, who they will be contacting, when, etc… as long as you are polite and professional, I don’t think that there should be a problem. Any reasonable recruiter, HR Person, hiring manager, etc… won’t be offended or annoyed. Don’t necessarily push-back, just ask for clarification and if you still don’t feel comfortable just ask if you can submit the information at a later time in the process.

  7. Another Emily*

    I find this discussion about having to give out your SSN early quite disturbing.

    In Canada, the SIN is even more crucial to protect. So if someone asks for it before you’re hired, run like the wind. (Hopefully you have the luxury to do that.)

  8. Liz*

    If it’s any consolation, OP, I’m in the process of upgrading my security clearance at work — which will involve, among other things, a two-hour phone interview that will cover things like drug use, consumption of pornography, etc.

    I’ve already filled out all the financial stuff. Highlights included getting my parents — who are rarely on speaking terms — to complete the sections about their formerly joint finances (they split up 16 years ago, btw), and realising the paperwork didn’t have an option for my stepmother’s citizenship status — permanent resident in Australia, citizen of another country all together.

    More than once I’ve wondered whether the boost in pay is that much of a compensation…

  9. Lib by Swedberg*

    You guys are scaring me to death. :-( I’ve never been convicted of any sort of crime (not even jay walking)…but…when the real estate market crashed in 2007, so did my world…including my credit profile and life savings.

    At the time the tragedy occurred, I lived in Minneapolis, working for Wells Fargo Home Mortgage. My husband and I were in the process of building a nice new home (valued at $720,000 in early 2007). The construction loan ($685,000) was in my husband and my name, and I was the general contractor. We also had a lien against our current home (owned for 17 years), and quite a bit of credit card debt that was being used to buy materials for the new home. The plan was to pay off the credit card debt with the profit from the sale of our current home.

    By the third quarter of 2007, it was obvious that neither my current home, nor the new home, was worth what was owed against them (already owed $600,000 on the construction loans). The construction lender was a local bank with 8 or 9 branches that was heavily invested in construction loans. In August of 2007, the bank refused to continue to pay any of the construction draws that I turned in. So, I had a 2/3 finished home (that was not able to be occupied), and no money to complete the construction. Immediately, of course, unpaid sub-contractors began filing judgments against my husband and I.

    If that weren’t bad enough…guess what my husband did for a living.? Right…he was a new construction trim/finish carpenter. His builders turned off their lights, locked their doors and stopped building new homes immediately (3rd quarter of 2007). So, a fairly good portion of our income was gone. And, with all of the area tradesmen out of work, it was virtually impossible to find a full-time job doing anything. Even WalMart had no open positions. My husband didn’t work from 2007 to mid-2009, when he and I separated.

    I used all of my Wells Fargo 401K savings ($200,000+) paying 2 house payments, and all of our other bills for 1 1/2 years..then was forced to let both homes go into foreclosure in late 2008. With all my savings (piled away over a 16 year period)all but gone, my sons and I loaded up a U-Haul and moved back to Texas…because that is “home” for me…and also because the cost of living is cheaper here, and Texas was not as hard hit by the “recession” as most of the rest of the country.

    Fortunately, I still had one or two contacts left in the Dallas area, and I was able to get a job for a medium size mortgage brokerage firm, where I worked for over 4 years. During the first interview with my contact (prior supervisor from 1992, when I moved from TX to MN), I nervously signed the release form for the background checks. I explained to my boss about my credit issues, and was hired for the job very quickly. I don’t know if the HR group did/didn’t pull my credit report, although I assume they did. I don’t know if I was hired because they felt that although I didn’t have a huge amount of unpaid debt, I wasn’t a threat of any sort, or
    whether my boss had enough pull to tell them that I was OK, and that she would “vouch” for me.

    OK…enough about the history piece of this story, except to say that I’ve been employed in the mortgage industry for 29 1/2 years without ever being laid off, down-sized, fired, etc. before. That said, I am now in the market for a job, and have been unemployed for over 2 months. I no longer have any contacts left to fall back on, and am going at every open position, for which I’m qualified, “cold.”

    Am I really not going to be hired for any financial industry-related position because I have an unbelievable amount of unpaid debt?

    Thanks to any of you who are able to shed any light on this subject for me!!!

    OH… Also, if any of you know of any mortgage lending underwriting call center/help desk opportunities, or training/communication/ implementation positions for a very smart, organized, and hard working chick living in the Dallas area…would you PLEASE let me know? OH…the position doesn’t have to be in the mortgage industry…I’m sure that I could do equally good work in any field. Trust me, I am very motivated…as a single mom with three boys to support, virtually on my own (since the “ex” makes barely over minimum wage…working at WalMart in the warehouse area).


    1. Vann*

      Libby, I’m curious whether you would update your comment/post? I’d expect the financial industry is pretty inflexible when it comes to poor credit and bad debt. However, it’s awful to think a mother of 3 would have no means of supporting her family due to the mortgage crisis. Considering nearly insolvent financial institutions were given the opportunity to continue in the industry, perhaps you as an individual received a similar break. Let us know!

  10. Barbara Kiviat*

    Thanks to you all for this very interesting discussion. I am a graduate student at Harvard University working on a project about how companies find good workers in today’s economy. This issue of background checks is really interesting– especially the use of credit history some of you mentioned. If anyone in HR would be willing to talk to me a bit more about this for my project, I’d really appreciate it. You brought up a lot of things I hadn’t before thought about, and I’d love to hear more. My email address is I am not interested in using anyone’s name, or company’s name, in any way. Thanks so much!

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