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Unintended Consequences of Automation in Background Checking

April 9, 2022

By Susan Chance, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

If you run background checks which include employment verifications, you are most likely aware that most employers these days use automated systems for employment verifications. One of the biggest of these systems is The Work Number, which is owned by Equifax.

According to a Washington Post article from March, a Google employee learned that the information was being shared with Equifax, and then posted the concern on an internal forum. The employee was concerned because Equifax had been hacked in 2017, and the hackers stole information on millions of people. Thankfully, the data system on which ASE accesses information was not part of the system that was hacked as Equifax keeps the Work Number data completely separate from the other data they maintain.

The chief information security officer for Equifax, Jamil Farshchi, states that Equifax has invested more to keep their information secure. He also states, “Today we’re leaders within the space relative to all the other industries and organizations out there.”

Of course, all of their investing has greatly raised the fees charged for using their services. A former employee of the company shared that in 2020 the average rate for “resellers,” which is what background checking companies are, doubled. Then in in 2021, the rates were increased by “another 70 to 75 percent.”

Employers who choose to use such systems find it easier than trying to handle the volume of verifications themselves. However, employees are not part of that decision and often do not know their information has been shared with companies outside of their employer. This became a leading question in a town hall for which Google employees wanted answers from company executives.

A privacy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, self-described as “the leading nonprofit organization defending civil liberties in the digital world,” Hayley Tsukayama, shares the concern about companies taking the decision of how their information is shared, and with whom, out of the hands of the employees.

Another concern, listed in a February Washington Post article, is that Apple changes the job title of all former employees to “associate.” While it was stated in the February article that a customer support person at another verification provider, InVerify, which is also owned by Equifax, that Apple is the only company he knew of that changed job titles to associate for former employees, Apple is not alone in that practice as multiple employers who use the Work Number also change the job titles to “associate” for former employees.

So why is that a problem? Previous employees of the companies which have adopted the practice of changing job titles to “associate” have, in a sense, put all former employees at the same level once they leave the company. While both jobs are very important, a receptionist becomes classified the same as a VP, which are vastly different positions. This can cause problems when the subjects are going through a background verification process for a new job.

One ex-Apple employee filed a complaint with the SEC over the job title change. That same employee has filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board, and the charge is being investigated.

I used to work with a very wise woman who taught me about unintended consequences, and the problems that can arise by not giving those consequences thought prior to changing or implementing new practices. We can only wonder, did Google, Apple, or any of the other employers think about the consequences of sharing employee information with outside companies without employee consent? Or did they think about the potential effects of changing specific job titles to the generic “associate?”

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