What Are the Rules for Employers Checking Your Credit?

It seems that no matter what you want to do these days, someone wants a peek at your credit history. Not only do lenders and insurers want to see what you are up to, but even some employers look at your credit report as part of a background check.
10/06/2014 01:35 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2014

It seems that no matter what you want to do these days, someone wants a peek at your credit history. Not only do lenders and insurers want to see what you are up to, but even some employers look at your credit report as part of a background check.

According to a 2012 survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, about 47 percent of employers use some sort of credit check to make hiring decisions. The idea is that it's possible to get an idea of what your weaknesses might be, or where you might be vulnerable.

For jobs that involve handling money, or that might involve proprietary secrets, concerns about financial problems (and the temptation to embezzle or take bribes) can seem valid. But, even if you aren't in such a position, an employer might still want to have a look at your credit report.

Is an Employer Allowed to Look at Your Credit Report?

"Employers may only look at a consumer's credit report with that consumer's written consent," says Meredith Griffanti, the Senior Director of Public Relations at Equifax Inc. That means that when you are applying for a job, employers are only supposed to look at your credit report after you have given them permission in writing.

If you are asked to provide that consent, you can always say no. However, this creates a bit of a dilemma for many would-be workers. "If a consumer is concerned about an employer looking at their report, they should not authorize it," says Griffanti.

But it's not always so easy.

What happens if your employer takes your refusal to consent as evidence that there is something seriously amiss with your credit report? While state laws vary on what employers are allowed to do, it doesn't seem like a stretch to consider that just about any hiring manager can find a non-credit-report-related reason to hire someone else over you, should you balk at agreeing to a credit pull by the company.

It's important to recognize, though, that your credit report is not the same thing as your credit score. Employers are not supposed to look at your credit score, and many credit reporting agencies make it a point to only include specific information on reports obtained for employment background checks.

What Do Employers See?

"Employers may only look at limited aspects of a consumer's credit report," says Griffanti. "Your Equifax credit file includes identifying information, inquiry information, public record, and collection information."

Here is the information that Griffanti says an employer is likely to see if he or she pulls your credit report as part of an employment background check (with your permission, of course):

  • Identifying information. This includes information such as your name, address, Social Security Number, date of birth and employment information. This information is not used in credit scoring. Updates to this information is typically received from information provided when applying for credit or benefits.

  • Trade lines are your credit accounts. Data furnishers report information on accounts you have established with them such as the type of account (bank card, auto loan, mortgage, etc), the date you opened the account, your credit limit or loan amount, the account balance and your payment history.
  • Inquiry information contains information about companies that have requested and/or viewed your credit report information typically within the last two years.
  • Public Record and/or Collection Information such as judgments, tax liens and bankruptcies may be reflected on your credit file. Your credit file may also contain collection account information for debts that have been turned over to an outside collection agency.
  • Even without your credit score, this is information that offers a fairly comprehensive view of your financial situation. If an employer thinks that your credit report has red flags that indicate that you might be willing to accept bribes in exchange for secrets, or that your financial troubles could lead to embezzlement, you might not be hired.

    Griffanti won't speculate on whether or not would-be employers could use this information to approximate your score, only pointing out that scores are not provided to employers, and that the information above is the only information made available to employers.

    Know Your State Law and Your Rights

    Remember that you have rights. First of all, you don't have to agree to let your current employer or a potential employer look at your credit report. Next, you should know your state's laws regarding uses of credit reports, especially as they relate to hiring and other employment issues.

    You should also know that you can have incorrect information on your credit report changed. It makes sense to keep tabs on your credit. There are a number of free consumer credit sites like Quizzle and Credit Karma, as well as AnnualCreditReport.com, that can provide you with insight into your current situation. If there are mistakes that could drag down your score, or present you in a negative light, consider writing to the credit reporting agency to have the mistake fixed. You have a right to make sure the information in your credit report is correct, and accurately represents you.

    Educate yourself, and if you aren't sure whether or not to give permission to an employer (or potential employer) to check your credit report, think twice before signing the form.

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