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is the Man onto me, man?
May 27, 2006 5:50 PM   Subscribe

How sinister is a pre-employment "investigative consumer report" that includes interviews with acquaintances? What do those interviews involve exactly?

I want to apply for a job that is planning to do a consumer report on me. This report is "for employment purposes only," but will include information "bearing on [my] character, general reputation, personal characteristics, and/or mode of living," partially obtained through personal interviews with "people acquainted with [me]" It'll also involve more (in my mind) standard background checks on my criminal record, driving record, past employment, credit history, and so on.

The personal interview part has got me curious. How are these investigations are carried out? Do they subcontract them to some kind of private detective firm? How do they figure out who my acqaintances are, and how in-depth are the interviews? If they find something sketchy about me, would they conceivably report it to the police etc, or is it truly for employment purposes only?

My situation: I'm a pretty responsible and upstanding citizen for the most part and all conventional background checks should clear me. However, I do have a fairly recent history of enthusiastic psychedelic drug use that a lot of my acquaintances know about, and am close to some radical political types, so the idea of someone snooping around trying to dig up dirt on me makes me a bit paranoid. I have a feeling it's probably more along the lines of "does anonymous eat babies? No? OK then!" but want to be sure before I consent to anything.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (14 answers total)
I would not take this job.
posted by Jimbob at 6:20 PM on May 27, 2006

Just curious: what kind of job is this?
posted by jayder at 6:26 PM on May 27, 2006

I think this sort of thing is standard procedure for many federal jobs. My friend listed me as a personal reference when he went to work for the forest service. They asked a few general questions, mostly about how long I'd known him, nothing in depth or potentially incriminating. He got the job.

I certainly wouldn't tolerate anything more than that from a private employer, actually, I wouldn't tolerate anything approaching that.
posted by Good Brain at 6:33 PM on May 27, 2006

do not trust your employer if they go to these lengths to hire you.
posted by brandz at 6:35 PM on May 27, 2006

This is standard operating procedure with federal jobs. My GF's mother is working for the Dept. of Homeland Security (aka INS) and I was visited by an investigator to answer questions about her. The investigator is a cop full-time, this was just something on the side to make a little extra cash, since they were short on investigators in my region and typically the police are used to dealing with liars.

The types of questions are almost comically predictable and useless... along the lines of, "Has you ever heard [person] talking about overthrowing the U.S. government?" or "In your own opinion, is [person] emotionally stable?" or "Have you ever seen [person] get very angry? What were the circumstances?"
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:47 PM on May 27, 2006

Eh. Seems to be generally in line with all those businesses out there (many!) who ask for a list of personal references. I'm guessing they have that on the application first to weed out/scare off people who might reflect poorly upon the company or who might flake out on the job. If those people don't apply or only get a short way into the hiring/recruitment process before being revealed as flakes, it saves them time and money.

Doesn't strike me as something to worry too much about—you get to choose the people you list on this anyway, right? So just choose carefully the people you list, and make sure they're aware that they're on your reference list and know what is/isn't appropriate to say.

I doubt this is the kind of thing where they're looking to report people to the police. They're concerned with their bottom line, most likely, and reporting the activities of people who don't even work for them to the police would almost certainly be a waste of their time. What I would say, though, is that if you are hired by this company, you should be very careful to divorce your personal life from your business life. This company is concerned about their image, and your use of psychedelic drugs is (1) nothing they need to know about and (2) something that would probably get you fired if they heard about it.

If you don't like to edit your speech, or if needing to choose a "public face" to present to the company bothers you, well, maybe the working world working for this company isn't for you.
posted by limeonaire at 6:58 PM on May 27, 2006

(Of course, my remarks about the background check process probably aren't applicable to federal jobs—if that's what you're applying for, read the other comments. But in that case, still take note of the other stuff—there are some things you just have to get used to when you're working for The Man.)
posted by limeonaire at 7:00 PM on May 27, 2006

I was recently used as a reference by a friend who had applied for a 9-1-1 job in Oregon. I filled out a 4-page questionaire (which asked the oddest questions: How much and how often does he drink? How would you describe his driving?)

This was followed up by a phone call by a retired cop who contracted with the county to do the interviews. (He also interviewed my friend, the job applicant, at length.) The interviewer asked me about other people I knew who could share light on my friend's personality.

Other agencies that I have heard of send detectives to the homes of the people who were used as references to ask questions.
posted by leftcoastbob at 7:01 PM on May 27, 2006

Did you ask HR what exactly this means? This is a standard thing on most applications these days and I always ask and they always say something to the effect of, 'yeah, we have to put that on there. we mostly just check to make sure you're not a murderer'.

I was concerned because my credit is shit and didn't want that to negatively affect my application. They laughed at me.

I probably wouldn't worry about it.

I mean, unless you tell them who your friends are, how are they going to know who to interview and ask about your drug use?
posted by misanthropicsarah at 9:30 PM on May 27, 2006

I had a similar experience with a private company I now work for, which shall go nameless. Basically, they wanted to do a background check and credit check, even before an interview. My worry at the time was that they'd potentially use bg information/credit check to determine a salary offer (thinking they operated along the lines of looking for high debt or time unemployed, etc and deduce 'We can low ball him, he'll have to take it!').

I called them on it, and said I wasn't comfortable with that level of investigation when I hadn't even interviewed and determined that I wanted the job or they wanted me. They then said the credit check form was an accident (which actually made sense- the mail said 4 forms to fill out and bring to the interview, while there were 5 attachments) and wasn't supposed to be there for the position I was applying to. I said I still wasn't comfortable with authorizing a background check and/or more, until I had done the interview and gotten an offer.

Surprisingly, this actually worked- they said yeah, let's do the interview first, but understand we'll want to do the background check (which was clearly through some 3rd party company) before we take you on. So I aced the interview, they gave me an offer in writing, "conditional on a background check", with an actual salary/signing bonus, etc. At this point, I was actually more cool with a background check (and as it turned out, they didn't actually run it- at least, none of my references were actually called), and felt I'd managed to negotiate "hand". Really, I wasn't so much uncomfortable with a background check as I was with doing it before I had any data to do ethical and personal calculus regarding background checks- prior to an interview definitely not, but once I had a (generous) salary offer and signing bonus, then I figured, "Yeah, sure... I'll let 'em go phone my references, etc".

So for you, even though they're asking for this, you can say simply that you aren't comfortable with this, or at least certainly not comfortable at this point in the interview process where you haven't committed to working for them, or they to hiring you. See if that works out- they may just want you to authorize it to weed out the flakey people, and you can probably get them to overlook it for you, or at least delay it until post-offer so that you can do the ethical calculus of "If I know that I get X dollars at Y job, is it worth it for me to give them the authority to have a 3rd party company call up my references?"
posted by hincandenza at 11:24 PM on May 27, 2006

I got one of these calls about a guy who was staying in my place. Finally the interviewer says: "I noticed construction materials in the hall outside your room, are you sure this is a legitimate residence?" Mind you, that was on the other side of the locked entranceway. Kind of creepy.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:44 AM on May 28, 2006

I would only add to those who have observed that a background check is common for Federal jobs - that it is also common for employment with companies with Federal contracts.
posted by megatherium at 5:34 AM on May 28, 2006

It's increasingly common for large consulting firms (in the US, at least) as well. I had to pass a rather thorough background check before being employed with one of the major multinationals a few years back.
posted by enrevanche at 2:23 PM on May 28, 2006

I grew up in a DC suburb where half of my neighbors worked for federal agencies that required regular -- often quite intrusive -- background checks. My dad was at State, one neighbor was CIA, another was FBI. Every few years, men in suits with clip boards would go door to door asking various neighbors about the character of other neighbors.

Now I have friends still in the area who work for private companies that contract for the feds, and I've been references a few time for their background checks. Half the time, I haven't even gotten a call when I've been a reference. But just in case, it's a good idea to make sure you refresh your references memory on your job history, date when you stopped any past drug use, and places where you've lived, just to avoid raising eyebrows.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 3:07 PM on May 28, 2006

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