Sunday, April 27, 2014

Power Disparities in the Workplace: The Indignity of Background Checks

My current job is switching me from a contract to a permanent position, part of this involves a thorough background check. Every time I go through one of these I am struck by how undignified the whole process is and how many employees have to go through this even though it has little bearing on their actual jobs. My particular case doesn't fit this, my position in the accounting department would present a number of opportunities to an unscrupulous individual.

However, reading over the fine print of the documents shows that they are not simply seeking targeted, job relevant information. Instead, the checks are very open ended and seek to gather as much information as possible. This is what I find disturbing, its a huge invasion of privacy. Yet, it seems that few privacy advocates seem inclined to take on this issue, all I ever hear about is attempts to curtail the governments information gathering, or in rare cases companies gathering information through the web, and never serious attempts to limit companies' ability to get potential employees to piss in a cup.

This dynamic represents one of the more obvious signs of the inequality between capital and labor in our economy. If we were all equal autonomous actors freely exchanging our labor for income then surely we would demand a large premium for this intrusion into our lives. Yet, coordination* among employers has rendered this individual negotiation impossible, mandatory background checks are a requirement of employment just about everywhere. Strangely enough, where they do begin to decline in frequency (but never really disappear) is at much higher levels in the economy where companies are even more vulnerable to a bad actor.

While this kind of dynamic doesn't impact me personal, beyond the indignity of it all, these practices do serve to keep labor down by creating a pool of individuals who find it difficult to compete on an equal footing for work due to having infractions that will show up on a criminal background or credit check. It would be far more equitable if employers were required to defend their background checks to only screen for items that would be directly job relevant, like drug abuse for a pharmaceutical company, theft or other property crimes for an accounting position, or serious violent crimes for any position. Yet, we see close to no pressure to force companies to restrict this practice, and certainly no pressure from individual level market participants who have no power to press their claims against employers who have an overwhelming advantage in forcing potential employees to acquiesce this invasive and undignified sacrifice of privacy.

All that said, another issue related to this is that employers have very little information available to them to assess potential employees, which leaves them little choice but to use resources like invasive background checks because at least this information exists and isn't filtered through personal networks which are unlikely to be objective about an individual. References can't really say anything bad for fear of legal repercussions, resumes don't tell a whole lot beyond what jobs someone held before which have their own issues for assessing performance in a new role, and less traditional methods like getting information from the internet which have their own issues regarding representativeness of employee behavior in the workplace. It is interesting how few sources of information have been developed by the private sector which would provide information regarding employees; for the most part networks are used which presents huge issues for thinking about markets in terms of autonomous actors and efficiency maximizing firms. But these are issues for additional posts.

*In the forms of norms and standard practices rather than conscious coordination.

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