The basic question is how much privacy, if any, should an individual be entitled to concerning employment?
The first level of this question comes concerning job applications… is it ethical for a business to expect employees to submit to a credit check, criminal background check or drug screen as part of their application? I’ll post later on workplace privacy, for now, I’ll consider job applications…
It’s a “hiring” market, companies have a duty to themselves, their current employees, their customers and their stockholders to get the “best” applicant out there. The problem is that it’s a common interpretation of hiring law (not the actual law) is that a “negative” job reference can be the subject of a lawsuit. The fact is that giving a reason for termination, factual data, review data and other objective facts of a person’s employment with your company is not viable grounds for a lawsuit by a former employee.
The trouble is, that references began acting as if this were law in the late 80s and things simply got worse from there — so, phone calls for references became archaic and conscientious business owners had to resort to objective means of assessing applications — enter the plethora of background checks.
Add to this a substantial concern about liability for negative employee action, i.e. the umbrella insurance every business needs to carry won’t pay, and you have a situation in which an objective means of evaluating employees is the only way a business can do their due diligence when hiring.
Some supposedly objective means of applicant evaluation aren’t so objective. For example, if a person has a long credit and work history from outside the country their credit record HERE won’t reflect that. If they’re being evaluated for a high-level job handling large sums of money, no credit score is the same as a low credit score and the person can’t get a job.
On the flip side, if a person has a substantial criminal background in another country, especially a non-western country, it won’t show on a background check. If you ever wondered why cab drivers and airport food vendors all seem to be from Africa, this could be part of the answer… they may have been law-abiding citizens abroad or they may have been career criminals, either way their convictions won’t show up in a 50-state background check and thus they’ll get a job over someone with an old conviction.
The other part of this is that people with legitimate violations on their record keep getting punished over and over again. A person may have had a series of serious mishaps with the law, been convicted, done their time and been released from all continuing legal ramifications, but because of an old violation, they can’t get the most basic job…. over and over again.
I’m not arguing that folks who committed grand larceny should be given access to large amounts of cash or that pedophiles be hired in pre-schools, but where does it end? If we want to stop recidivism, we need to be serious about the ability of convicted felons, who have satisfied ALL of their legal obligations, to gain meaningful employment — otherwise, their only option may be to commit other crimes to survive.
In terms of credit-checks, really — who needs a job more than someone with poor credit? In the aftermath of an economic disaster many responsible people have significant marks on their credit report. Are they irresponsible because they were laid off, couldn’t pay an inflated mortgage and lost their home? Of course not, but to deny a job based on that is short-sighted at best.
In terms of drug testing — it makes sense for certain positions — if a person will have access to large amounts of cash or be required to regularly operate heavy-machinery, it makes sense to limit the risk to the company and general public. On the other hand, many drugs (THC in particular) remain in a person’s system long after their effects have ended. Other drugs (arguably more serious than pot) leave the body more quickly. So, while a drug test may eliminate a casual pot user, it won’t catch someone who has been off of many hard drugs for more than a day or two.
Additionally, isn’t it the case that how a person spends their off hours is more or less their business? If a person is “on-call” they should be sober, but if they aren’t and will be sober by their next shift, is it really the employer’s business how they spend their off time?
Finally, from personal experience, asking invasive questions on a job application concerning religion, legal substance use and sexual practices is simply stupid and nosy… I don’t want to tell a prospective employer that I may or may drink a beer with my family, be a buddhist and occasionally do something other than the “missionary” position… I just don’t.