Philadelphian Kenneth Hutchinson thought he had put unemployment behind him when he was hired at a GameStop in September. Things were looking even brighter when he landed a second job as an overnight manager at Walmart. But then both positions came to an abrupt halt after criminal background checks turned up a 1996 felony cocaine conviction in Gloucester County, Va.-- charges that Hutchinson had never heard of or been convicted of.
"I have never even been to Gloucester County, Va.," Hutchinson told the Philadelphia Daily News. "Back then, I was still in high school."
To privacy advocates, Hutchinson's story is a familiar one. Employers are increasingly conducting background checks on prospective employees and even existing ones. They are done for reasons of both security and liability.
Background checks can include everything from credit and criminal history to social network use.
Pre-employment checks, according to provider Employment Screening Resources, "can minimize or even avoid the financial and legal nightmares that come from hiring a person with an unsuitable criminal record, falsified credentials or some other issue that makes him/her dangerous, unqualified or unfit for the position."
Nearly 80% of respondents to a survey by the Society of Human Resources Management said that they did post-employment checks for reasons that included a change in status (part-time to full-time) or when a worker was being considered for a promotion; 18% said they did such reviews annually.
"While some people are not concerned about background investigations, others are uncomfortable with the idea of an investigator poking around in their personal history," says the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, an advocacy group. "In-depth background checks could unearth information that is irrelevant, taken out of context or just plain wrong. A further concern is that the report might include information that is illegal to use for hiring purposes or which comes from questionable sources."
As the numbers of reviews rise, so do the numbers of errors, according to privacy rights activists. The problem can be especially problematic when it comes to criminal background checks because statistics show that one out of three adults has a criminal record, according to Maurice Emsellem, policy co-director of the National Employment Law Project.
"It's definitely a growing problem," he says. "It's a huge concern for workers."
Errors can occur in both searches conducted by the private sector and the government. People with common names can be mistaken for someone else; records can contain outdated information; simple human error can cause people to lose their jobs and, in some cases, become financially destitute as they spend months trying to clear their names.
"There are really no statistics on that," says Tena Friery, research director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. "I suspect that most people don't know why they didn't get a job."
Sometimes even knowing the reason doesn't help.
When a law (passed in the aftermath of September 11) required Port of Seattle employees to get a security clearance, longshoreman William Ericson was unable to obtain it: A background check wrongly showed that there was a pending case of forgery against him. Ericson had worked at the port for 12 years.
His story was outlined in a 2009 report by the National Employment Law Project and Ericson's current status is unclear. Thousands of port workers have had similar experiences.
Earlier this month, a Florida sheriff's department mistakenly attached the driver's license photo of a young man named Zachary Garcia in a press release about the arrest of a suspect in a murder case. The suspect in the case, Zachery Garcia, was a year younger than the college student with the similar name.
The problem may only get worse. As Gene Ferraro, CEO of Business Controls, which conducts background investigations, notes: Local governments are releasing less data in criminal records out of privacy concerns and to save money. This gives firms like his fewer data points to match and to make sure their reports are accurate. Moreover, once errors enter large databases used by aggregagtors, they are difficult to remove since they are duplicated.
"There is going to be more ambiguity (about records)," he says, adding that his firm did a search in Los Angeles County a few years ago for the name Jose Garcia and got 35,000 hits. "Really, what we are doing is providing more protection to the dishonest rather than the honest."
In some cases, people who find errors in their background reports are allowed to seek redress under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which applies to credit reports. Employers are required to provide notice to workers if they find adverse information and allow them time to correct it. Companies who conduct the checks themselves are not required to provide such notice.
"It's a pretty rough situation out there," says Maurice Emsellem, Policy Co-Director of the National Employment Law Project. "There seems to be no limit to the types of information companies want to access."