Today, it is common for employers to look at job applicants’ personal credit history before making a hiring decision. According to a survey of human resources professionals, nearly half of employers check an employee’s credit history when hiring for some or all positions.1
The practice is hardly limited to high-level management positions: even a brief look at a popular job listing website reveals that employers require credit checks for jobs as diverse as doing maintenance work, offering telephone tech support, assisting in an office, working as a delivery driver, selling insurance, laboring as a home care aide, supervising a stockroom and serving frozen yogurt.2
Some employers also conduct credit checks on existing employees, often when they are considering a promotion.
despite their prevalence, little is known about what credit checks
actually reveal to employers, what the consequences are for job
applicants, or employment credit checks’ overall impact on our society.
This paper, drawing on new data from Demos’ 2012 National Survey on Credit Card Debt in Low- and Middle- Income Households, a nationally-representative survey of 997 low and middle-income American house- holds who carry credit card debt,3 addresses these questions and finds substantial evidence that employment credit checks constitute an illegitimate barrier to employment.
Credit reports were not designed as an employment screening tool. Instead, they were developed as a means for lenders to evaluate whether a would-be borrower would be a good credit risk: by looking at someone’s history of paying their debts, lenders decide whether to make a loan and on what terms.
Accordingly, credit reports include not only an individual’s name, address, previous addresses, and social security number, but also information on mortgage debt; data on student loans; amounts of car payments; details on credit card accounts including balances, credit limits, and monthly payments; bankruptcy records; bills, including medical debts, that are in collection; and tax liens.
Credit reports may be purchased by employers through any number of companies that offer employment background checks (which also may include checks of criminal records or other public data) but the credit portion of the report is typically supplied by one of three large global corporations: Equifax, Experian, and Transunion, which are also known as consumer reporting agencies (CRAs). Credit scores —another product used by lenders which consists of a single number calculated on the basis of information in a credit report—are not typically provided to employers.
Employment credit checks are legal under federal law. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) permits employers to request credit reports on job applicants and existing employees.4
Under the statute, employers must first obtain written permission from the individual whose credit report they seek to review. Employers are also required to notify individuals before they take “adverse action” (in this case, failing to hire, promote or retain an employee) based in whole or in part on any informa- tion in the credit report.
The employer is required to offer a copy of the credit report and a written summary of the consumer’s rights along with this notification. After providing job applicants with a short period of time (typically three to five business days) to identify and begin disputing any errors in their credit report, employers may then take action based on the report and must once again notify the job applicant.
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