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The Worth of You or Me

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 "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 RooseveltAre we on the way back to this?

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.

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About j.m. harrison

  • http://nexttolastblog.wordpress.com/ Glenn

    How sad. How did we ever get to this point where credit checks influence employment decisions. Congratulations to Oregon lawmakers. Corpocracy rules our lives

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    But don’t you all know? The person’s intrinsic worth is determinable by their bank-account balance in our advanced society.

    The money culture rules.

  • Doug Hunter

    Like anything, there’s two sides to it. Should people who have proven themselves responsible with their finances be stripped of the small benefit they receive from that record of responsibility? I’ve been on the bad side of this, not with my credit score, but with other financial measures that I thought were unfair, but I survived and overcame them.

    You’re credit score doesn’t say anything about how you’ll perform on the job, neither do multiple felonies, or performance at your last job, or wearing a tanktop to an interview, or a history of drug abuse, or even using the word ‘fuck’ in every other sentence.

    Any of those could turn out to be great and productive employees, should we outlaw any consideration of an applicant’s past in the offchance it might snare some unfortunate soul and reduce hiring to a first come first served basis?

    My view is, if I’m giving someone a job I should be able to factor in any consideration I choose so long as it can reasonably be explained as financial rather than strictly discriminatory against a protected class. If the market is not properly serving those with bad credit, perhaps you should consider opening a firm and hiring those gems that were overlooked based on their scores. I hear say that women will do the same job as a man for 70% of the wage as well. I suggest hiring only women with bad credit scores and taking that 30%+ labor cost advantage to the bank (certainly you should be competitive then).

  • j.m.harrison

    Doug: Let’s start with the Oregon bill which I support in its present form. It states, essentially, that if there is a overarching reason to run a credit report then it’s fine. Just as there are jobs you would not give a convicted felon, for instance someone who had repeatedly robbed pharmacies won’t like be hired once out as a pharmacy tech, there might be some jobs where a credit report would tell someone something critical about your ability. The very first thing that comes to mind is – working as a bill collector. If the person in front of you has had ten years of terrible credit with a mile long list of collection agencies on his ass – then SURE, he might not work well as a collector – given his history with them.

    But other then that what is a credit report going to tell you as a STATIC piece of information? I am sure that you’ll agree there are people out there with 720 scores that are completely amoral and couldn’t be trusted for a moment. But they’ve been very clever. They’ve covered most of their tracks. So the final piece to help you make that decision will be that 720 score??

    And let’s go back to Wall Street. Seriously. These bastards raped the country blind AND are doing it again.

    No doubt every one of them has a sterling resume and an utterly perfect credit score. And of course they’ve done nothing ‘illegal’ because of course they paid lobbyists and then congressmen millions to CHANGE those laws. So ‘ethically’ they’re just fine as ‘ethics’ is laughingly taught in MBA programs (btw, in a recent study MBA students were shown to be the most likely to CHEAT on tests by double digits over the next group). So, given their perfectly legal actions you’d have no problem handing over your entire investment portfolio to these boys?

    The point is – except in rare cases there is not a damn thing on that credit report that can tell you ANYTHING about a person. Not really.

    If as companies are really worried about hiring the wrong type – rewrite the laws allowing what can be said about a former employer AND allow that employee the opportunity to give you as the employer multiple ‘contacts’ within a company. That way if there is a manager who was an utter ASS and fired this person but a dozen others in the company said this guy was outstanding there is a balanced perspective.

    Last example. Perfect credit score. With existing laws last three employers, scared of a lawsuit simply say, “yes he worked here”. You hire him and the guy is a blatant racist or sexual deviant?? What to do?

    But hey, that score clinched it? ;>)

  • Clavos

    I hear say that women will do the same job as a man for 70% of the wage as well. I suggest hiring only women with bad credit scores and taking that 30%+ labor cost advantage to the bank (certainly you should be competitive then).

    Though the industry and company I worked for when I was in the corporate world did pay men and women in the same job on an equal basis, I hired women far more than men for my staff, by as much as an 80-20 ratio. I did so, because of the truth to the old saw about a woman having to work twice as hard in business to be thought of as half as good as her male counterparts.

    I found that women generally did indeed work harder than men, and I preferred them for that reason.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    I’d prefer them for another reason as well, but that’s just the (Eastern) European in me.

  • Doug Hunter

    #4

    There is some truth there, I know this stings because it effects you specifically but from an outside perspective it doesn’t seem particularly egregious. There really are people who are punished their whole lives over a bullshit felony committed at a completely different time and place in their lives. There are people who would be great laborers but don’t have money for appropriate attire or means to get to a worksite. I know insurance companies have been known to use credit scores in their premium determinations as well and it has raised some ire (although it seems reasonable to me that people with money trouble MIGHT have more incentive to find a claim and I believe statistical analysis bears that out)

    #5 & #6

    Good points. Having hired a few folks myself I won’t disagree. (with either reason) I said it tongue in cheek originally, but there’s something there.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    I remember hearing that in France, there’s no such thing as credit checks.

    There go those evil socialist French again….

  • j.m.harrison

    Doug…

    I still see any use of a static and too often incorrect report as singling out the poor. With regard to insurance – I’ll offer myself as an example again. I’ve had several insurance companies try to hike my rates off a credit score. Despite the fact that I have driven OVER a million miles – most of that as a truck driver – with NO accidents on file EVER. Yet the insurance companies would give me a ridiculous quote that I knew was based on my credit score (because, yes, for some time I sold insurance). It took time but I found a company that didn’t. The credit report can be explained away by insurance companies with their statistics. But then anything can be explained away by stats. It’s simply another way to extract higher premiums – just as Anthem(?) one of the large health care providers this week announced that their revenue was going down because people were dropping Anthem coverage because they couldn’t afford the rates – consequently Anthem announced another round of rate INCREASES. Talk about the insanity of Catch-22.

    Please don’t assume too that this article was written as a personal grip. While I’ve found business behavior toward me due to the reports as lousy I am just not that kind of person. I am deeply concerned about this as a national trend that will have severe repercussions.

    It is a grossly unfair to millions. If I’ve driven say, 250,000 miles in “X” number of years with no accidents and yet my credit score is in the tank – you, as the insurer will jack my rate OR deny me based on this? Based on WHAT?! There’s nothing substantive to base it on – no reality to base it off of.

    Thanks for the engaging input Doug.

  • Doug Hunter

    #9

    Discrimination and it’s limits is always an engaging topic.. one of those intractable problems where either extreme seems silly. Thanks for writing on it.

  • STM

    Glenn: “There go those evil socialist French again….”

    There’s a couple of superfluous adjectival descriptions in there.

    Just French will do. Doesn’t everyone get the picture just from that :)

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Heh. Sounds like you ought to adopt the Duke of Wellington’s family coat of arms from Blackadder III… “Two crossed dead Frenchmen on a field of dead Frenchmen”. :-)

  • STM

    What about a whole crowd of people, with everyone holding a baguette??

  • j.m.harrison

    Ahhh how I’ve missed Blogcritics! Good to be back.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    STM –

    I was being sarcastic…because I think that requiring credit checks sounded good in the beginning, but in practice it’s become a sort of economic tyranny. If it is true that the French don’t require credit checks, then they’ve the better system.

  • http://www.refindyourway.com Refindyourway

    Any government is built for making people into slaves, taxes are just one way of ripping people of, then banks with their loans… Very wrong, but that’s living.

  • j.m.harrison

    As I spoke of in my piece… The ‘new’ poor will be composed of a relatively well educated ‘former’ class of Middle America – a population that knows how to organize, how to plan, how to network, and is very soon going to refuse to continue to accept their fate. It is a very dangerous mix.

  • j.m.harrison

    UPDATE: SB 1045 in Oregon passed today. It now goes to the Governor to be signed.

  • Boeke

    harrison is right. And it should be evident to everyone by now that the leaders of American industry are pathetic idiots. They didn’t get to the top by demonstrating skills but by being aggressive and demanding promotion, even when they didn’t deserve it.

  • Greg Fisher

    A television station in Portland reports, “He says he can’t get a job because of his credit score.”

    However, the employer said that it does not use credit scores for employment screening.

    What evidence suggests that employers use credit scores?

    What is the name of an employer who uses credit scores?

  • j.m.harrison

    You’re right Greg. No employers use credit scores. I was joking. I also did a mock up of the New York Times article and the bill passed by the Oregon legislature today was a ruse.

  • Greg Fisher

    The word “score” does not appear in the article or the bill.

  • http://www.chicagolandbankruptcyhelp.com John Kunes

    It’s a shame that credit has such effect on everyday life – from the cost of auto insurance premiums to employment prospects. Negative credit reporting often stems from a legitimate dispute with the creditor. But rather than make an effort to resolve the dispute, the creditor simply sends the account to collections leaving the customer with no recourse and a negative mark on his credit history. Discrimination by employers based on bankruptcy is violative of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. Perhaps legislation is needed to prevent employers from basing employment decisions on credit history as well.

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