In a Nov. 28, 2005, article, the Monitor asked: "Who is checking the background checkers?" It cited the case of John McDonald, an information technology worker in the Boston area struggling to find a full-time job. Pre-employment background checks claimed that he had failed to disclose an arrest, used two aliases, and had never worked for two of his former employers.
All of the claims were false. Mr. McDonald was astounded by the erroneous reports. But with no job, no money, and unaware of the legal recourse available to him, he felt powerless. For about two years, he had all but given up on finding a job.
But last month McDonald contacted the Monitor to say that, thanks to the help of a kindly background screener, his record is almost completely exonerated.
"Feeling helpless is the worst feeling in the world," he says. "When you find out that the companies you're trying to work for think you're a liar, you lose the ability to go to a job interview with confidence."
Vindication came in the form of Mary Poquette, co-chair of the National Association of Professional Background Screeners and president of her own firm, Verifications Inc., in Minneapolis. After reading the Monitor article in which she had also been quoted, Ms. Poquette contacted McDonald and offered to exonerate his record free of charge.
Some of the errors stemmed from the fact that John McDonald is such a common name, especially in Massachusetts. It was a different John McDonald whose record showed a Class D substance possession arrest, and still a third McDonald who had worked for one week as an intern at one of his previous employers - leading background checkers to assume McDonald had exaggerated his résumé.
It had not helped that McDonald used the name "Jack" at one of his previous jobs. Poquette is still searching for some of McDonald's records at that particular employer.
Where McDonald blames incompetence for his tarnished reputation, Poquette sees legal ignorance. The potential employer, McDonald says, did not follow certain procedures guaranteed by the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act: He should have been shown a copy of his background check, been informed of his legal rights, and offered a chance to dispute the screener's findings. On the other hand, McDonald never contacted a consumer reporting agency, Poquette says. which is required to investigate disputed background checks free of charge.
Despite the persisting ambiguity about his record, McDonald tried something recently he had not done in years: applied for a job. "Surprisingly enough," says McDonald. "I even got a call back."'