Employer Credit Checks: A Discriminatory Practice

Credit ScoreLenders use credit reporting information to determine a borrower’s creditworthiness and to make lending decisions. However, a new report by Demos reveals that a growing number of companies are checking credit reports as part of the hiring process.     

According to Demos, 1 in 4 unemployed people reported that a potential employer requested to check their credit report as part of the job application. Employers’ rationale for this practice is that people with bad credit scores will be less reliable or won’t be hard-working or high-quality employees. Yet the report clearly shows that negative beliefs about people with poor scores are nothing more than false stereotypes. According to Demos, financial misfortune is the major driving force behind peoples’ low credit scores, not irresponsibility or poor work ethic. Job loss, loss of health coverage, and medical debt are the leading reasons for poor credit scores—not laziness or irresponsibility. While these factors might hinder a person’s creditworthiness, there is no evidence to suggest that they hinder a person’s job performance. Additionally, African Americans and other minorities are more likely to have poor credit scores, partially due to the proliferation of predatory lending schemes that target minority neighborhoods. Often, these predatory financial products leave people with no option but to default on their loans. The practice of using credit checks in the hiring process is a clear example of structural racism and could be a driver of the ever-growing racial wealth gap.  

Moreover, credit scores are prone to error, and therefore cannot be relied upon as an accurate predictor of a person’s reliability as an employee. According to a recent Federal Trade Commission (FTC) study, 1 in 4 consumers identified at least one potentially material error among their three credit reports that could negatively affect their credit scores. Out of the people who found errors in their reports, just 5.2% were able to have their credit scores adjusted enough to move to a lower credit risk score. This study revealed that the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) is inadequate in allowing consumers to control their own credit scores. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)’s recent comprehensive study of credit reporting found that ongoing efforts to measure credit report accuracy will likely continue to rely on consumers to identify potential inaccuracies in their credit reports and to rely on the dispute resolution system to validate that inaccuracies have occurred. However, the FCRA’s existing consumer dispute process will not identify or ameliorate certain types of errors that may be associated with the credit reporting agencies’ data processes.

As part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Financial Protection Act, the CFPB was given authority to supervise both consumer reporting companies and those that provide consumer reporting companies with consumers’ credit information, such as large banks and many types of nonbanks. In July 2012, the CFPB adopted a rule to extend its supervision authority to cover larger consumer reporting agencies, and in September it released the examination procedures it will use to examine these companies. Previously, these companies were not supervised at the federal level. In October 2012, the CFPB began accepting consumer complaints about credit reporting; for the first time, this gave consumers individual-level complaint assistance with consumer reporting agencies at the federal level. The CFPB has indicated that it may also consider the development and implementation of data quality and accuracy metrics to reduce risk to consumers and assure compliance with FCRA obligations.

As of February 2013, eight states (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Oregon, Vermont and Washington) have passed laws prohibiting the use credit checks as part of the hiring process. During 2012, 35 bills in 17 states and the District of Columbia were pending related to restrictions on the use of credit information in employment decisions. Given credit checks’ low probability of providing reliable proof of a worker’s abilities and its disparate impact on minorities, this practice should be banned nationally. Moreover, when credit rating agencies make errors on reports, the person with the damaged score should not be punished. Requiring people who have suffered financial misfortune to face greater barriers to employment embodies everything America is not about. 

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