Want to hire talented individuals? Then stop treating them like criminals.

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I’ve just registered a formal complaint with my agency about the intrusive nature of the background checks for a contract position at a major investment bank.

Having had two years out of work, I have been asked to provide personal bank statements to prove that I was not, in fact, working and am not now attempting to hide a period of employment that may have ended in me being fired.

Any other contractors out there, reading this, will be familiar with this practice. Most large corporations use the same agencies and resource providers, all of whom carry out the same stringent background checks.  And periods of unemployment greater than a few months in length always require evidence.

But the fact that it’s standard practice, doesn’t make it right.  And having spent the best part of the last 20 years working in IT and business change environments, I find it impossible to simply shrug it off and accept that “it’s just the way it is”.  This is a process that is crying out to be changed – because it is intrusive, stressful, dehumanising and, ultimately, likely to deter some candidates from pursuing jobs for which they may otherwise be perfectly suited.  It is certainly making me seriously question how much I actually want this job, and I am on the verge of walking away.

I did not intend to be out of work for two years.  I intended to take a few months off, to spend time with my uncle, who was dying.  But his eventual death, and dealing with the probate of his estate, kept me occupied way beyond the few months I had originally envisaged.  My subsequent decision to relocate to the Lake District, to be closer to my mother and to manage the renovation of my late uncle’s house, which I now own, brought me to this point where, two years later, I am now looking for work and being asked to account for my actions over the intervening period.

But having worked for this particular bank previously, as well as for numerous other banks where plenty of former colleagues and managers would be able to vouch for my character and experience, it is deeply insulting to be treated from the outset with a degree of suspicion that assumes I must be lying about my activities.

And so what if I was?  So what if I had briefly been employed, in a job which had no relevance whatsoever to the job for which I am now applying?  Why shouldn’t I be allowed to simply not mention that job?  We all know recruiters and clients often don’t look beyond the most recent job on a CV – if a contractor wishes to draw the client’s attention to the job prior to that, if that is the job that is most relevant to the role they are applying for, why shouldn’t they be allowed to do so, by simply leaving off the most recent role?

Similarly, if a contractor has left a previous role due to a clash of personalities with a manager, or issues of harassment that may not have been dealt with properly by the company in question, or simply because the role turned out to be completely different from what was advertised – how is that any business of a future client?

There could be myriad personal reasons why a job doesn’t work out, and no candidate should be forced to disclose, or talk about, such matters if they do not wish to do so.  This desire to discover details about a candidate’s personal or professional history that they may prefer to keep private and that have no bearing on the job in question, borders on a type of voyeurism that I find quite distasteful.

Recruitment should be about finding the person most suited to perform a role.  It should be about assessing the candidate’s experience and personality, and deciding whether they will be a good fit for the company and the team.    It should never be about digging into every detail of the candidate’s personal life – particularly when the person doing the digging is invariably somebody who has never even met the candidate.   I am not, by nature, a secretive person – the very fact that I write this blog is a pretty clear indication of my willingness to make my thoughts and experiences public – but the thought of somebody I have never met, trawling through my bank statements in the hopes of catching me in a lie, makes me deeply uncomfortable.

I can understand the need to get as detailed a picture as possible of a candidate’s character prior to hiring them.  Particularly when the job involved is a permanent position, or places the candidate in a position of seniority.   But when the job involved is a six month contract, with the client having the option to terminate that contract at any time during the six month period – and when the candidate is already known to the client, having worked for them previously – there is no justification whatsoever for such intrusive checks.  Criminal records and credit checks should suffice.

Why is it that the word “human” so often gets forgotten in the term “human resources”? A one-size-fits-all approach to background screening, that ignores the candidate’s experience, history, personal circumstances and existing or prior relationship with the client, completely fails to take into account any human element whatsoever.  Companies wishing to attract bright, talented individuals who are capable of free thought and who have the necessary drive to effect change within the organisation, would do well to think about what impression they are making on candidates when they submit them to such rigidly-enforced processes.   When “do you want this job or not?” is the standard response to any complaint about violation of privacy, there does come a point at which the answer is “not”.







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