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The spread of the credit check as civil rights issue

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 18, 2007


Lisa Bailey worked for five months at Harvard University as a temp entering donations into a database. When the university made the job a salaried position, Ms. Bailey, who is black, saw a chance to lift herself out of dead-end jobs.

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Bailey's superiors encouraged her to apply, she says, but turned her down after discovering her bad credit history.

Bailey, with her lawyer, has lodged a complaint against Harvard charging racial discrimination. The reason: Studies show that minorities are more likely to have bad credit, but credit problems have not been shown to negatively affect job performance.

Some privacy and minority advocates are now seeing credit as a civil rights issue as minorities start to fight employers and insurers who base decisions on credit histories. Their effort could slow the near doubling in credit checks by employers in the past decade, which impacts millions of Americans who are struggling with debt.

"It's definitely a civil rights issue because of the growing use of credit reports and credit scores for hiring, renting an apartment, insurance, and the fact that people of color have not been integrated into the credit scoring system as much as traditional, white, middle-class America," says Evan Hendricks, author of "Credit Scores & Credit Reports: How the System Really Works, What You Can Do."

In a 2004 study involving 2 million people, the Texas Department of Insurance found that blacks have an average credit score roughly 10 percent to 35 percent worse than whites; Hispanics have scores 5 percent to 25 percent worse than whites.

Credit checks are a growing factor in hiring, with 35 percent of employers checking applicants' credit in 2003, up from 19 percent in 1996, according to the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM). Typically credit reports are done if a person is going to deal with money, says John Dooney, a manager of strategic research at SHRM.

A case for considering credit

Employers should look at credit only for jobs where the information is relevant, says Lester Rosen, president of Employment Screening Resources, a national background screening firm in California. He cites a few examples:

• For jobs handling money, people may have the motive to steal if their debts surpass their salary.

• For jobs requiring travel, bad credit could bar applicants from renting cars or buying tickets.

• For jobs managing money, the report can offer some clues on how applicants manage their own.

Particularly in that last scenario, he cautions employers to be circumspect since blemishes might be errors or beyond the person's control, such as sudden medical expenses. Legally, employers must receive written permission from applicants to do a credit check, and must give those denied because of credit a chance to respond.

Mr. Rosen defends the careful consideration of credit in the hiring process. "If Harvard hired a person and did not use a credit report and the person embezzled, what would the headline be?" he asks.

So far, there's a lack of data supporting a relationship between bad credit and theft by employees. In perhaps the only study published on the subject, Jerry Palmer and Laura Koppes at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond in 2003 found no correlation between employee credit reports and negative performance or termination for dishonesty.