Our Brave New World of Employment Background Checks

With unemployment stubbornly high, even a small problem can be enough to keep you from getting a job. And thanks to modern technology, employers are a lot more likely to be aware of these problems. Obviously a prison record has always made it hard to find a job. A poor credit report can blackball you these days. And today the New York Times reports on a new breed of databases that track retail employees accused of stealing:

Retailers “don’t want to take a chance on hiring somebody that they might have a problem with,” said Richard Mellor, the [National Retail Federation’s] vice president for loss prevention.

But the databases, which are legal, are facing scrutiny from labor lawyers and federal regulators, who worry they are so sweeping that innocent employees can be harmed. The lawyers say workers are often coerced into confessing, sometimes when they have done nothing wrong, without understanding that they will be branded as thieves.

….For Keesha Goode, $34.97 in missing merchandise was enough to destroy her future in retailing….She received a letter from Dollar General alerting her that she had been turned down for a job partly because of her listing in Esteem, and a copy of the report showed that she had a “verified admission” for “theft of merchandise.” She wrote LexisNexis, “I was accused of not reporting on a former employee who was stealing merchandise, but I did not steal anything myself.”

The company responded that it had reinvestigated and “verified” the accuracy of the information. Ms. Goode, who now works at a halfway house, has a lawsuit pending against LexisNexis, accusing the company of violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

Sure they reinvestigated. They probably pinged the original retailer and asked if the charge was true. The retailer sent back a routine confirmation and that was that.

It’s pretty easy to understand the retail industry’s interest in something like this. If I ran a store, I’d be pretty interested. But these private databases are springing up everywhere; there are no rules to ensure any kind of accuracy; most people don’t even know they’re in them; and there’s usually no effective way to appeal a black mark if you do find out. It’s like being caught in TSA hell.

The increasing reach of computer and network technology is making this increasingly widespread. Mistakes are rampant, coercion is likely common, and even where the charges are true, this brave new world means that a lot of people are being effectively shut out of the labor market for minor offenses that they could have put behind themselves in the past. I’m not sure what the answer is, but this stuff is growing like a weed. It needs some rules of the road before it gets entirely out of hand.


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