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Why It’s SO Hard to Get a Job

As if the poor economy, high taxes, too much regulation, advancing technology and globalization weren’t doing enough to torpedo the job market, there’s yet another obstacle to finding a job, one of a more personal nature and it’s having a bigger impact all the time.

It’s the background check.

Background checks now go farther and wider than they ever have, but it’s happening against the backdrop of a time when life is getting uglier and more complicated than ever for tens of millions of people.

It’s getting more difficult for a job seeker to pass a background check; in fact, at times it looks like a conspiracy. With computerization and the increased availability of data at progressively lower cost, more information is available about us than ever before. And unfortunately, economic, legal and social conditions are combining to make it more difficult than ever for the average person to pass employment muster.

Consider some of the information employers seek in background checks against the state of the world we now live in.

Deeper background checks

With computerization, employers can dig deeper now than they ever could when background checks were done manually. The deeper they dig, the more “dirt” they’re likely to find.

Consider that it’s fairly common for job seekers to leave temporary or short term jobs off their resume or a job application in an attempt to look more stable; if he’s held enough jobs, he might even forget to list one. Chances are those jobs will show up somewhere in a background check, opening up questions as to the candidate’s honesty or work history. An employer may conclude that the job was left off because the candidate was fired, or worse. Employment application denied, next candidate.

Now set this against the backdrop of an employment environment that’s been unstable for years now, forcing people to take a series of short term jobs in order to stay afloat. The possibility of some sort of conflict at application is substantial and growing.

Credit History

Pulling credit history is standard procedure by employers today. Yet we’re at a time when record numbers of people have experienced foreclosures, bankruptcies and other credit-impairing conditions. It’s a paradox that people with damaged credit—who probably need a job precisely to improve their credit situations—may be disqualified as a result.

Criminal background

It can be difficult to impossible to get a job if you have a criminal conviction in your past, and more companies are checking into this than ever. This comes at a time when there are more people with criminal records than ever, and it’s a much bigger issue than most people know.

Right now in America there are 65 million people who have criminal records–convictions either for misdemeanors or felonies. That’s more than one out of every four adults in the country. Most are for relatively minor offenses, often early in life, but that may be all it takes to put an end to an employment application.

Social media behavior

The social media are where technology and humanity merge, and as much as we might enjoy participating, employers are increasingly checking our public comments to get an idea as to how we think. This can work in your favor if the reviewer is partial to your interests and ways of thinking. But if the reviewer doesn’t like what he or she sees, or considers that it might be contrary to the employers interests, you candidacy could end on a few comments you thought nothing of at the time you wrote them.

How many people could potentially have their candidacy ended by comments on the social media? Anyone who’s ever made a comment on the internet!

With all of these factors added together it’s amazing any one ever gets a job, isn’t it?

Now, you may be thinking ”It’s a free country, I’m entitled to say what I want,” or, ”I have a right to privacy” but both of those notions are false assumptions when it comes to employer background checks. When you fill out a job application, the fine print gives them your permission to conduct a search on you in nearly any direction you can imagine.

Computers are only getting more powerful and consequently background checks can be expected to go even deeper. So how do we deal with that in connection with finding employment?

Improving your personal profile

Knowing that nearly every move you make is being recorded somewhere means being mindful of the records you leave behind where ever you go. Most people have something in their past that an employer might find disagreeable, but going forward make an effort to:

  • Keep your credit clean, if you have derogatory information do what you need to do to clean it up. Time usually heals credit wounds, so get started today.
  • Be more careful when driving—checking driving records has become standard. Some employers may disqualify you if you have a certain number of citations in a given time frame.
  • Avoid behaviors and activities that could land you in front of a judge.
  • Be careful what you put out on the web, especially on the social media.
  • Build friends, not enemies. In any job you hold, do the best work you can and try to get along with everyone. Most important, do your best to leave on good terms.

Making an end run around background checks

Let’s say that you’ve been fired from a few jobs, your credit is less than sterling, there’s a criminal conviction in your past, or maybe you’ve been pretty, shall we say, outspoken in the content you’ve written on Facebook—any one or a combination of two or more could render you “damaged goods” to an employer. If this describes you, it might be in your best interest to make an end run around background checks entirely.

  • Gravitate toward skill sets that are in such high demand that you’ll be less likely to have your candidacy destroyed by a background check.
  • Work for smaller companies—they’re usually less likely to rely on background checks for needed employees, and might not go too deep if they do run one.
  • Become self-employed. Except for certain business licenses, no background checks are needed. I know it’s not as easy as just hanging a shingle and working for yourself, but if your background is impaired, this might be the best long term solution.
  • Live beneath your means. If you have difficulty getting hired, you probably want to avoid living a lifestyle that might require a high income job—and the detailed background check that usually comes with it.
  • Build a strong professional network. Sometimes having influential people going to bat for you will be enough to overcome negative background information. It will depend on the influence of your referral, the severity of your background issue and the flexibility of the employer.

Just a few years ago, background checks were more of a formality than anything else. But back then far fewer people had credit problems or criminal convictions, the job market was much more stable, and the social media didn’t exist. Today is a new ball game entirely.

Even if you don’t fall into any of the categories above, the world is in a constant state of flux and employment background checks are becoming one of THE employment issues of the day. Our financial futures may very well rest on our ability to pass them—or to make other arrangements if we can’t.

Do you have any experiences or advice on how to deal with these or any other background check issues that might help a job seeker?

( Photo by somegeekintn )


14 Responses to Why It’s SO Hard to Get a Job

  1. I actually passed my background check for a job, but I can definitely see where it would get people in trouble. I’m actually just having a hard time finding a job period. Yeah, the positions are out there, but without a BA, that eliminates about 80% of the positions available.

  2. Kevin M says:

    I’ve had a couple of extensive background checks in the past two years myself, which is what inspired this post. I passed both and got the jobs (both contract positions) but I was stunned at the length and breath of the investigations. It ocurred to me that a lot of people probably wouldn’t make it past them for the reasons above. There just aren’t as many “perfect candidates” as there used to be!

  3. S. Red says:

    As a career specialist in a university, what you say is true, if you don’t have a squeaky background you will be hard pressed to get by the background check. My fear is that we’ll ultimately be divided into two massive groups–the squeaky clean employed, and everybody else. I thought that when an individual pays their debt to society–goes to jail, serves time, pays a fine–they’re done, but no, they will pay the rest of their lives job searches that extend months, even a years. Those with records are encouraged to go back to school, but then they find doors slammed in their face. For my students with extensive backgrounds, I encourage them to target small companies and to network, network, network! An employer that knows something of your personal character will take a chance on you, but if you’re applying to faceless corporate America, forget it if you have a background. Someone with prior convictions can’t be too picky as well, and needs to establish a regular pattern of working.

  4. Kevin M says:

    S. Red – I’m not suprised at what you’re reporting. I was stunned to learn that there are 65 million people in this country with criminal records. I had a suspicion the number was high, but had no idea it was that high. We’re creating a criminal class, a huge swath of the population that are being pushed out of the mainstream. I suspect that this, and other qualification issues, are increasingly part of a permanently high unemployment/underemployment rate going forward.

    Considering our cultural fascination with criminal justice–just look at all the crime related shows on TV, plus the local news programs who seem to feed on crime–it’s hard to see this situation improving anytime soon.

    I agree with you that the best course of action for a person in that situation is to gravitate toward smaller employers where there’s a chance of making personal connections that might overcome the backround issues. What ever anyone’s opinions of those with criminal records, there has to be a productive place for these people to go, otherwise we’ll have bigger problems. Perhaps if we could get back to the days of “paid his debt to society”, the prisons wouldn’t be such revolving doors.

  5. Background checks are really like any other tool — that it’s how you use them that really makes a difference. Yes, there are important details you can find out from background checks, but looking for a completely spotless record may be difficult to come by.

    But also if a company has an internal hiring policy and simply shows a public job listing as a formality, you may find yourself applying for jobs that already have a candidate in mind.

    That aside, I like your tips, Kevin. And regardless of what anyone thinks about freedom of expression on your own personal social media pages, etc., maybe bad-mouthing every employer or co-worker you’ve ever had isn’t the best thing to show a prospective employer.

  6. Kevin M says:

    The fact that so many people are less than perfect right now may actually be helping to balance things out a bit–it becomes a matter of degree more than anything else.

    I agree, the social media should never be a venting ground against employers, or anyone else. But the reality is that that’s often exactly what people do, and that’s where it creates problems.

  7. Chris says:

    I again agree with your point about varying degrees of ‘not perfect’ balancing things out. Many would look at a speeding ticket as less of a disqualifying factor than a felony conviction.

    But how can a prospective employee overcome these type hurdles? Yes, being able to make personal connections, particularly at smaller companies, can definitely help. If you’re being routed through hiring departments, human resources, etc., you may not make it past the first step in a multi-step review process.

    And maybe it’s just me, but if you do manage to get face-to-face, it’s probably best just to be honest about things. I’m not saying you have to go into every detail. But, saying something like, “This was something that happened in the past, and this is how I dealt with and overcame that situation,” you can present it at least as a growth experience.

  8. Kevin M says:

    Chris – That’s an excellent point as well. If you do have something in your past that you know about, you should have an intelligent explanation readily available. A short but comprehensive one is better, with the most important part being your ability to explain why it’s behind you. If you spend too much time explaining, that could be a clue to the interviewer that the problem isn’t entirely behind you.

    It’s such a delicate balance but how you handle it will probably be the difference between getting the job and being passed over. Of course that assumes that they’ll even ask about it. Often once they discover the issue, the hiring process ends with no further exchange. It might help then to volunteer an explanation of what you know they’ll find out.

    It’s almost harder if they turn something up in a background check that they never discuss with you, like a political persuasion that they discover on the social media.

  9. Hi Kevin, thanks for letting people know about the new, extensive background checks. At my husband’s company, they do everything from Googling applicants to making them take an “honesty test.” Those who fail to clear one of the obstacles are not hired, no matter how good a fit they are.

    I was really shocked to find out how many Americans have criminal records. No wonder so many are “dropping out” of the work force. My friend who had a DUI on his record used to explain to prospective employers up front that he was an alcoholic at one time, but he had been sober for X years. He was able to get a job as a professor that way.

    I agree that we are creating a group of unemployables, at least in the medium term. That will have serious implications for crime I believe. Now you can’t even reform yourself as your past will follow you around.

    There was a recent case of a porn actress who went back to school to become a teacher. She is now being fired from her career for something she did at a young age and isn’t doing now. How many others must be losing jobs for youthful mistakes they regret which don’t make the news?

  10. Kevin M says:

    Jennifer – I hadn’t even thought about psychological testing when writing this post! That’s a whole other issue, and yet another disqualifier. I’ve taken a couple of these myself and find myself wondering about the sanity of the people who design them.

    What’s sad about those with criminal records is that many people today are being arrested for offenses that didn’t exist 20-30 years ago. They’re being demanded by a generation who themselves weren’t subject to them. Think about all of the people who used marijuana and other drugs back in the 60s and 70s, or were perpetually driving drunk before there were punitive laws against that stuff. I’m not saying that this kind of behavior should be legal, but I’m not sure we should be destroying so many lives with criminal charges either.

    I think people who advocate for getting tough on crime need to balance it out with the impact of having so many people with criminal records being pushed out of the maintream. That isn’t good for society either, as we can see from the fact that we seem to be no safer as result of all the tougher laws and sentences.

    It all makes a strong argument for being self-employed and/or developing multiple income streams. No background checks there! In the economy as it is we should be doing that anyway, but the firey hoops that everyone has to go through to get a job is another good reason.

  11. Keith Dennis says:

    Great information! I own an Investment business and do run background checks. For me, squeaky clean makes me suspicious! I definitely agree that a small business is the place to go. There, you get to “plead your case” and show your strong points. But be sure to drop off the application in person, dress the part, and ask to speak directly with the owner to introduce yourself.

    Owners are impressed with people that make an effort. With big corporations your application gets trashed before any of the real decision makers ever get to see it or talk to you in person.

    Thanks for the post!

    Keith

  12. Kevin M says:

    Keith – Excellent point! Face-to-face is practically a requirement in the job hunt. We want to find a job from the comfort of your homes and spare ourselves the discomfort of getting out and meeting people–and risk the rejection that brings. But it’s the only way to stand out from the cyber crowd of job applicants.

    Sometimes the old way is the best way.

  13. m says:

    Ya the way i use to look at bums hanging around is get a job. Well no its time for me to get a job. It is fing hard. i had one mis. and instead of paying for it om community service that i did. im paying for it in job turn downs. So it is now a fing deal where it is an illusion to pay a debt to society. u suffer the rest of your life. Credit is having a job to pay bills. no job no pay bills credit is damaged. then cant get a job cause credit is a mark against you EVEN AT THE TEMP SERVICES THAT PAY $7.25 HR REQUIRE EXTENISIVE BACKROUND CHECKS. never mind the people who require/ this/ grew up in the 60s broke all kinda of laws now hold u to a higher standard. to all of you say be self employed requires money to fund items needed to fund a self empl job not an option. the small companies are going to self employed contracting means pay ur own taxes, no unemployment, no workers comp, if u get injured well not their problem,some require you buy fuel to go to customers houses, tools etc. if u come to us via another country ur record is a clean slate it doesnot matter what u did in africa, mex u could b a hard criminal us business roll the red carpet and employ u. Kevin write more in depth about a way to counter the credit and backround checks. I paid my debt to society messed up only one time a mis. now gettin fu*ed by not being employed losing credit history by the previous.

  14. Kevin M says:

    M – I’m sorry to hear about your situation, but I’m hoping that your story will benefit others. Apart from becoming self-employed or working as a contractor I don’t know that there’s any way around the background checks. I remember hearning the term “paid his debt to society” years ago, but you don’t hear that any more. 65 million people with criminal records is way too high and we’re all paying for it one way or another.

    The problem is getting more attention though. Last week The Economist, a European based publication wrote about America’s “permanent unemployment” and cited the high rate of incarceration as one of the major reasons.

    You make a good point about those who grew up in the 60s–the things they got a slap on the wrist for are now felonies. And now it’s largely people in that age group who are calling for more get-tough-on-crime laws. They had their fun, now they want everyone else to behave. Go figure!

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