Job Seekers: Watch Your Back(ground)

Blog author’s note: At any time I have at least 3-5 essays in progress. I have several that are almost ready, but they are still being tweaked and I’m not truly happy with them yet. Thus, in the interest of getting something “out there”, I am reposting an essay from 2008 with some tweaks and updates.

In 2003-2004 I was “in transition”, looking, and getting enormously frustrated as I’d routinely get interviews and even second interviews, but no offers (annoyingly, that sounds very familiar in my current situation!). As I’d opined in more than one letter to the editor, as well as in my piece entitled “The Perfect Fit, Isn’t” on Ask The Headhunter, I couldn’t figure out why. After a particular incident, though, I think I know one reason why I had difficulty back then (today, I suspect other factors).

Pull Up a Chair

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 an 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.

With my offer letter and checkbook in hand I explored apartment complexes in southern New Hampshire. I found one with a good price, nice layout, and great location. I went in, filled out the application, and warned them that since I’ve been un- or under-employed for over a year, my credit history might be – to be delicate – imperfect. Of course there were many questions to answer and slots to fill out, and I did so. And on one, to be described in a short time, I answered “no.” My paperwork was taken by a slim, young blonde woman who said she would just run their standard checks, and would be right back.

So I was waiting, and waiting, and waiting. I was actually getting a little antsy when the male apartment complex manager came in, closed the door, and said that they had 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 an explosive “MY WHAT?

They showed me the printout: a guy with the same first and last name, plus same birth year, was convicted of a very bad thing in Pennsylvania – disturbingly at the same time that I had been living there going to graduate school for my first Masters, in Mechanical Engineering. We had 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 don’t necessarily blame them). I asked them to run it again through the private database company. They did and gave me the printout. Under my Social Security Number was this guy’s felony conviction.

To make a long story short, I did get it cleared up, and the company that had the erroneous data in the first place verified that correction in writing. 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 both fax and hardcopy letter that I was not this guy based on fingerprints; thus, definitive proof I was not him. (I knew this, of course, but it was good to have that official confirmation! And I still have that letter, just in case.) Armed with this information, and the knowledge that this was on my record with this database company – with me in the process of getting this taken off – I got an apartment elsewhere. Even though this new place was more expensive, I didn’t want there to be even a scintilla of a hint of a chance someone might make an off-hand comment about my initial rejection, even with me holding absolute proof I was not that guy.

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.

Would People Tell?

I’m on LinkedIn, so I posted a question through their Q&A function 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 criminal record, only to have something like this pop up. The answers surprised me.

I was happy to see that the majority 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. (A truly open-minded company, hearing someone say disbelievingly “MY WHAT?” after telling them of their discovered criminal record, might actually be willing to suspend ruling the person out until this was cleared up.)

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 move on to the next 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)… like people make it a regular habit to run background checks on themselves. Not in the circles I frequent, they don’t!

Supposedly there is a law that if something in a background/credit 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? Protestations aside, everyone knows that some things are always better left undocumented.

Who Knows What Mistakes Lurk…

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, I occasionally wish this mix-up would happen again, as I’d be a rich man – but my record is clean. To wit: at the end of 2014, I ran a check through beenverified: nothing. 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 as a sanity check. Who knows what screw-ups are lurking there, possibly costing you. Whether you have a common or uncommon name, it pays to watch your background.


* What I suspect happened is this: demographic data is valuable; the more complete an individual’s profile is, the more valuable it is. I think – without any proof of course – is that the company’s computer program was cross-referencing records, saw these two David Hunt records with the same birth year (and residing in Pennsylvania at the same time), and assumed it was the same person. In my opinion, what should have happened was that the computer would see an incomplete match between middle initials, month and date of birth, and then kick the two files to the attention of a human being who, assuming more than three functioning brain cells, should have seen the differing data and say “No, not the same guy.” I made that reprogramming suggestion to the database company when I sent in a copy of the letter from the Pennsylvania State Police to have them clear my record in their files.


© 2008-2015, David Hunt PE

2 thoughts on “Job Seekers: Watch Your Back(ground)

  1. Awesome and very informative. I have been through several very stringent background checks and have always gotten the offer (what can I say, I am a “stud” of a project manager with a gift for spending OPM- Other People’s Money) but your story helps provide additional positive reinforcement to my disciplined approach to checking up on myself.

    In Geneva NY I actually was falsely arrested because of an identity fraud case…remind me sometime over the next few months, that was one hell of a story as well…

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