In the gutter, with no view of the stars

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde – “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”

In what bizarre social imaginings, would it be acceptable for somebody to make a wildly libellous accusation, and then demand that the accused provide them with sensitive private documents in order to enable them to attempt to prove the accusation?

Well it turns out, if you’re attempting to return to work after a career break or period of unemployment, it’s actually pretty common.

Picture the situation.  Having got through the process of having to update your CV and attempting to put a positive spin on the fact that you’ve been unemployed, caring for relatives, bringing up young children or simply lazing about at home contemplating your navel for the last few months or years – you finally manage to secure an interview. So you put on your best suit, smile, shake hands firmly, make lots of eye contact, talk confidently about your experience and your interest in the job on offer, discuss the reasons for your recent gap in employment while the interviewer nods and smiles understandingly, and then go home to wait nervously by the phone before finally getting the call offering you the job.

And then the company hands your file over to the massive agency to whom they’ve outsourced their HR department, and you get an email from a cheerful young 20-something, asking you to please provide your bank statements for the period that you were not working, to enable them to attempt to prove that you were not, in fact, doing what you claim to have been doing in recent months or years, but instead are trying to hide the existence of a job from which you were fired.

I wrote recently about my outrage at this process, with its presumption of “guilty until proven innocent”.  At the time, I was under the impression that this practice was unique to large corporate entities, particularly banks and other financial institutions, notorious for their deeply suspicious attitudes towards staff and customers.   A long-running source of amusement among banking contractors is the irony, in our post-financial crisis world, of banks insisting on carrying out credit checks on contractors prior to offering them a contract.  It is the contractor, after all, not the bank, who faces the risk of non-payment of invoices if the bank should fail.  But having consented to a credit check, and a criminal records check, I still fail to see the argument for any bank – or their HR agency – having the right to interrogate my personal bank statements prior to offering me a job.

But it turns out the practice of delving into potential employees’ or contractors’ private lives, is not limited to the corporate world.  A brief internet search revealed a long thread on Mumsnet started by a woman planning to return to work as a nurse for the NHS, after a couple of years at home with her young children.  She, too, was expected to provide bank statements to prove that she was not hiding some kind of illicit employment.

In fact, a brief glance at the websites of a few of the various agencies involved in finding and placing candidates at positions across many industries, reveals the fairly common boast of being able to detect “hidden employment” among potential candidates.   Far from being embarrassed at the intrusive nature of the checks they are carrying out, these agencies are actually proud of their ability to poke into the income and spending habits of their candidates.

This, they argue, is their job – to check the references of candidates, including academic and work history, and the verification of employment gap activity. There are, of course, instances in which bank statements can be used as evidence of activity – such as where a person has been travelling and the bank statements show cash withdrawals and spending in other countries.  But trawling through bank statements looking not for evidence of activity, but for absence of evidence, is just a straight-up invasion of privacy.  And if you object to being asked to hand over your bank statements, the answer is a simple “If you don’t give us your bank statements, we can’t issue your contract”.

Even the much–publicised GDPR regulations don’t appear to offer any protection. Ask for your bank statements to be destroyed once they have been checked – as is supposedly your right under GDPR – and you will be told that unfortunately, because you signed a form consenting to the agency and the client using your personal information for the duration of your assignment, not only will the statements not be destroyed, but they will be held by the agency, and the client, for the duration.

Pointing out the fact that the information shown on the statements is being used by the agency in a way that is entirely inappropriate to the supposed purpose, in direct contravention of GDPR, elicits barely a raised eyebrow.  “We have very good lawyers – they would tell us if we were doing anything illegal” is the standard response.  To which my response is “How sure are you?  Do your lawyers actually know you’re doing this?”

That’s the trouble with large organisations – often the left hand has no idea what the right hand is up to.

Why is this not a national scandal?  I can understand how many people would be unaware of this, as it only affects those who have taken a career break and now wish to return to work.  But this is something that will overwhelmingly affect women more than men, given women are far more likely than men to take career breaks either to have and raise children, or to look after elderly relatives. So why are feminists not up in arms about it?

Personally I have found the whole process so off-putting that I’ve ended up turning down the job, preferring to focus my energies on finding work with a smaller company that I hope will show a bit more respect for me as an individual. I wonder how many other women would similarly find, after a period out of work and away from the usual demands of corporate life, that they no longer wish to work for a company that treats them from the outset with such a degree of suspicion, simply because they chose to prioritise their family for a period of time? Isn’t this something that the Equal Pay champions should be all over?

Short of illegal activity, which a criminal records check would pick up, it is not up to any company to question the word of a potential employee who claims to have been unemployed or not working for personal reasons.    Reference checking should be about verifying that a person is not exaggerating their qualifications or experience – not about making a person account, in excruciating detail, for what they were doing while out of work.   HR agencies would do well to remember that – and leave the slander and voyeurism to the gutter, where it belongs.

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