"Let the watchwords of all our people be the old familiar watchwords of honesty, decency, fair-dealing, and commonsense… "We must treat each man on his worth and merits as a man. We must see that each is given a square deal, because he is entitled to no more and should receive no less. The welfare of each of us is dependent fundamentally upon the welfare of all of us." –Teddy Roosevelt
I often wondered, when I was filling out applications for jobs or sending in my resume, about those employers who informed me that they would be doing a credit check as part of the pre-employment screening project. I knew, generally, what they would find on my credit report. It wasn't pretty. Divorced, single parent of two, part-time college teacher, student loans weighing me down, and eventually, a bankruptcy some years later. My credit report looked like downtown Beirut in '82. Still, I was a bit confused. Yes, my credit history would cause a bank loan officer to flee his desk in horror, but this had absolutely nothing to do with my being able to DO THE JOB.
The course of my life has been, to say the least, interesting. It's a bit calmer now. I teach history at college. I'm not tenured, but that's coming. I have a writing career that is right on the edge of taking off, but these are very recent events.
Last year was another matter. My business, tied directly to the real estate market, went from boom to bust. Finally, after many months, I had an opportunity for a very good position at a Fortune 100. I had all the qualifications they were seeking. Three interviews in I felt extremely confident, especially since they were staffing for multiple positions in this department.
Everything had checked out. My references, both personal and business, couldn't praise and recommend me enough. The hiring team was excited. Then the senior manager of the department mentioned the “one last little thing,” a credit check. I didn't flinch. I don't flinch these days. I've raised two kids on my own to become wonderful, responsible adults. I'm all flinched out.
I told them that my credit report would not look good and here's why. The senior manager, Steve we'll call him, waved it off as no big deal. I left with all but the words “you're hired” coming from his lips.
I didn't get the job. I wondered. I went from wonder to seriously suspicious just three weeks later. In my own version of Groundhog Day, I once again found myself finishing my third interview with a firm that was a major competitor of the first firm. We were wrapping things up when I was told there would be a credit check. I still didn't flinch but I did perhaps squint slightly. “It's just a formality!” The manager said, waving it off. Uh huh. You know where this is going.
About a month later I was thumbing through the New York Times, when I came across this article. I began to realize that what I'd suspected I'd been through was not some isolated event but rather a full-blown national trend. An ugly national trend. A trend that on the surface looks innocuous enough. The casual concerns offered up by the business community (I love the image this invokes, a group of snappily dressed 19th century gents standing around the entrance to the corner apothecary, puffing on pipes and gazing about in genteel concern) seem normal enough too, unless one stops and replays them in one's mind. Then it begins to become apparent that this trend is anything but innocuous for at least tens of millions – perhaps upwards of one-sixth of Americans.
What is the worth of a man or a woman? Is it found in their resumes? Their C.V.s? Can you really tell anything about a person, in a meaningful way, from a credit report? A report, mind you, that may, a week after being checked, change to one riddled with errors? The answer is a resounding "no!" Then why is it done? The Times article mentions that,
Employers, often winnowing a big pool of job applicants in days of nearly 10 percent unemployment, view the credit check as a valuable tool for assessing someone’s judgment.
Someone's "judgment." You mean the judgment that caused this someone to believe their company valued them after ten or fifteen years on the job and wasn't going to pull the rug out from under them by shipping their job overseas?
Judgment. Do you mean the judgment that led a person, perhaps a single parent in a desperate attempt to keep the family afloat, to use the credit cards too heavily, because, having been on more than a dozen interviews in the space of several weeks he or she felt certain things were going to turn for the better soon? Do you mean that kind of judgment?
In the same article we read, “…executives say that they have an obligation to be diligent and to protect themselves from employees who may be unreliable, unwise or too susceptible to temptation to steal, and that credit checks are a help.”
Temptation to steal? Really? So by this logic, what you're saying, Mr. Executive, is that we should have run credit checks on all those folks on Wall Street, you know, the ones who contributed to the greatest financial collapse of the past seventy years? Tell me, based on your keen insight of a person's worth and these people's utterly reprehensible behavior, you no doubt would have pegged all their credit scores to average out in the low 400s, yes? The boys and girls at AIG must have had exceptionally low credit scores, huh? I bet you if you look hard enough they probably ran out after selling a few trillion dollars in derivatives and signed up for a Target store card and maxed it out in one weekend in celebration!
I, at times, wish that I could sit down with that senior manager and ask him: “Steve, does the credit report mention anything about how I was downsized from a company by a CEO who, as it turns out, was cooking the books to make figures look good to the owners in Chicago, and that, when he ran out of schemes he fired about a third of upper management, including me? Does it mention that this was in the middle of the dot com fiasco? Does it mention that my income was cut in half and that I ended up taking two jobs, working 7 days a week, upwards of 70 hours a week, for nearly three years while raising my two teenage children and caring for my ailing mother, who has since passed on, God bless her soul? Did Experian or TransUnion mention this in their report? Did they mention that people have quite literally put their very lives in my hands and that I came through for them each time? That no one has ever, on any job or in my private life, questioned my honesty, trustworthiness or integrity?”
The same went for my father, who had a tough go of it after his first marriage ended. I was the product of his second, several years later. This was back in the days when the divorce laws in California were extremely punitive toward men. My father's ex, a vile woman by everyone's (including three different judges') account, who was later confined to a mental institution, made my father's new life with my mother a living hell, financially. She had him jailed several times for non-payment of alimony when he was unemployed. Yet no one in our town ever knew my father to be anything other than an honorable, absolutely trustworthy man, a man who'd fought bravely in World War Two and had received the Bronze Star. A man who, with very little education, managed to find a way to have a medical clinic built in our town, saving its residents from having to drive over an hour to the closest hospital. Had a credit check been necessary for my father to work we would have starved. Fortunately, this was still in an era when a man's reputation was summed up by something more than a three digit number.
I am happy to say that my state, Oregon, is one of those which have recently begun to restrict severely the use of credit checks by employers. SB 1045 is about to be voted on by the legislature and it has the backing of everyone but the obstructionists. I hope this will become a national trend.
The implications are otherwise too grievous, tens of millions of Americans permanently locked out of any kind of upward economic mobility, and subsequently a growing class of permanent poor. Let's be clear here, it will be a well educated (newly) poor. A poor who knows how to organize and mobilize. A poor who won't take this injustice sitting down. They will be screaming in the streets that a person's worth is not three digits long!! They'll be right of course. But by then it might be too late.
Call or write your state representatives today and tell them this.Powered by Sidelines