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I recently interviewed for a position with the hiring manager and her next-level manager. I was offered the job on the spot, which I accepted. A couple of days later I received an e-mail from a 3rd party company asking for consent for a background check.

I didn't find this unusual as most companies I've worked for do conduct pre-employment background checks. However, as I started into their online submission process, the first thing to sign was the consent form.

I took the time to read what I was signing and saw that the consent was not for a one-time background check, but for open-ended consent without notice or disclosure. It was very clearly asking for consent to conduct future background checks at any time during employment and without any type of notification.

I've never seen anything like that before. I e-mailed the hiring manager and explained that I was not comfortable giving open-ended consent and that I would not be moving forward with the company.

I then received an e-mail from the next-level manager basically saying that it is the company's policy but that it is never abused and asking me to reconsider. I politely declined.

I don't have anything to hide or be concerned about and don't anticipate anything in the future. I just felt it was wrong to be asked to sign off on something like that.

Is this common practice nowadays? Did I over-react?

EDIT: To clarify, this is not a sensitive role in any way. No trade secrets, no secure information, etc. No request for non-disclosure or non-compete agreements. This is a part-time very low level merchandising role - placing coupons in stores.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Snow Mar 21 at 7:29
  • Additionally it would seem you are giving the background check company the blank check to do additional back ground checks, not just your potential employer, so that's the real rub and they should consider another vendor. – Bill Leeper Mar 21 at 16:01
  • "This is a part-time very low level merchandising role - placing coupons in stores." - Can these coupons be traded for cash or otherwise sold for profit by you? – Dan Mar 21 at 18:50
  • @Dan Good question. I can't imagine that the coupons would have any cash value. (If they did, it would only be a fraction of a cent.) Plus, given that the quantity provided is very small, and proof of placement is required, it would be almost impossible to profit from selling them. – Cindy Mar 22 at 9:30
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    @Cindy Okay yeah the constant checks seem to not be applicable in this situation given your job profile. Unless you access an area where cash or valuables or company secrets are stored. I think you made the right call here. – Dan Mar 22 at 13:39
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As a European, I don't think you overreacted in the slightest!

When they say "it is never abused", my reaction is "they would say that, wouldn't they?". Further, they may not abuse it now, but what about later when they have been taken over by a less benevolent organization.

Given that you don't need the job, I think walking away was the right thing to do.

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    I love it when people say "Yes, it would allow us to do that, but we would never do that." If you would never do that, then why would you need blanket permission to!? – user1602 Mar 18 at 12:26
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    No no, it's fine! Give me your credit card number, its expiration date and CVC... I mean, yes I could use it to impersonate you... but I won't! – Patrice Mar 18 at 14:06
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    It's weird reading "as a European" from an actual european. In the context of this question it doesn't mean anything and I wouldn't expect a local to promote the false concept that we're somehow a big united country with the same types of governement or cultures. Not sure if a German, a Swede and an Ukrainian would have that much values in common. +1 On the actual answer, though ! – Echox Mar 18 at 15:31
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    @Echox I have worked in the UK, Germany, and Switzerland. My impression is that the view on what is acceptable in a workplace is very different between Europe and US. I accept there are significant differences between different European countries, but not I think as big as the differences between Europe in general and the US. – Martin Bonner Mar 18 at 15:41
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    The same applies to things like background checks; I don't drive trains or planes and a mistake on my part would at most result in some downtime on an application somewhere - not in people dying. Therefore, even if I don't take any drugs and never have, I'd consider drug testing or background checks an unacceptable intrusion in my privacy and I'd never sign a contract requiring them (not even una tantum), unless the employer is prepared to buy me off with a really ridiculous amount of money. Everything has a price after all. – Demonblack Mar 18 at 16:31
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I admire you for following you conscience, and it is people like you that stop the gradual oppression of the working class by increasingly overbearing corporate America. OK, maybe I've gone a bit far. Anyway...

Yes, I would classify this as strange, given the industry and role, though I'm not from the US.

it is the company's policy but that it is never abused

That's, you know, exactly what one would say if they abused it.

Policy is borne of company needs, it isn't a reason it itself. If you were feeling charitable, you could have asked them why the policy is the way it is.

Whatever you do, it will come down to your needs. Maybe one day you will compromise on your morals, but hopefully you have enough opportunities that you never need to.

  • If they don't need it then it can be removed. If they do need it, they need to be clearer as yo when, who, how, and if you will be told... It's the old 'trust but verify' problem. – Philip Oakley Mar 20 at 12:41
  • FWIW, your answer shows a blatant misunderstanding of corporations. It could equally well be an LLC or a sole-proprietorship. – Hosch250 Mar 20 at 14:56
  • @Hosch250 Very good point. I better get around to completely rewriting the whole answer. Thanks for the heads up! – Gregory Currie Mar 20 at 15:00
  • Cool. And sorry for being a bit rude in my first comment. – Hosch250 Mar 20 at 17:18
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Consider the statement

it is the company's policy but that it is never abused

While "They would say that, wouldn't they?" is a perfectly reasonable (although somewhat cynical) response, it's not necessary to go that far. While the moment has passed, a perfectly logical response would have been

What part of company policy establishes the definition of "abused"? And what are the penalties if abuse occurs?

Refusal to explicitly define the company's power in this sort of situation is an open invitation to (ahem) abuse.

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    "it is the company policy" and "it is never abused" are two independent claims. No one said that there was a company policy preventing or punishing abuse. – Ben Voigt Mar 19 at 4:15
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    Wouldn't classify the initial response as cynical though ;) There was a particular period, until just over 80 years ago, where a lot was registered about people. Up until that point it hadn't been abused. That information was then abused and millions of people paid a steep price. Obviously, not every company ends up doing what happened at that particular point in history and not every "step across the line" goes that far. But it does underline a very good practice of not giving away more information than necessary (and not storing more than needed as an entity storing information). – rkeet Mar 19 at 9:14
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I have a medical matter that comes with a consent form. The form there, like yours, authorises them to contact "anyone" to check "anything", without time limit. (And, incidentally, not just limited to the medical matter, according to the strict wording.)

I did as you did. I declined - but in order to smooth it over as best I could, I wrote clearly in the blank space for the signature, something like "CONSENT TO BE OBTAINED IN WRITING ON EACH AND EVERY OCCASION", and signed that instead.

My rationale was that this way, nobody could ever argue that I had refused consent. On the contrary, I'd made it abundantly clear that consent could be requested any time it was needed. That, I felt, would put me on very solid safe ground if any unknown person in a back-office or higher up tried to put coercive pressure on me, or implied I wouldn't get what I wanted unless I signed fully.

Consent can't be consent unless freely given.

It was completely non standard - but I never had an issue doing it. I've done it several times since, and never had any hint of an issue any time - perhaps because it's so darn obvious what the issue is.

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    But how do you know they have not done further background checks on you? Do you think those asking for a check have read your contract? – Mark Mar 19 at 12:54
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    @Mark I think the idea is that any information obtained this way is harder or impossible to use against the signer. Since to prove the legality of said background check they wouldn't be able to produce a valid consent form. Legal matters aside, I don't think consent forms are very valuable for protecting ones privacy. – Inarion Mar 19 at 15:34
  • If you are in us and in at will employment they can just sack you if they find something – Mark Mar 19 at 18:14
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    @Mark - this is medical checks - firstly they won't be able to get any doctor to provide info without demonstrating consent. It's also for statutory purposes, and the people it's for, would need some way to persuade other third parties known to me, who they approach, to divulge sensitive uncommon information to unknown people. No consent, almost certainly no answers, and I'd hear about it first hand in minutes. Inarion is also correct, but really, it's the hammer that would fall if they tried to obtain personal info without consent, that would be the big one. – Stilez Mar 19 at 19:16
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    Sorry, but this is totally different. Medical checks don't include the same parameters/checks as background checks.That said, the idea is not foreign. It's just that it's not an option for this situation. That was clearly stated in early comments. There was no option for altering the agreement or amending it. – Cindy Mar 19 at 19:52
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It certainly is odd, however one thing the other answers have not yet picked up on is that in some industries, repeated background checks are the norm and sometimes even mandated. However in such cases the rate of such checks being "at the company's discretion" is not normal at all.

Most places (and legislations) that require repeated background checks usually specify a fixed rate of when they happen (annually, once every six months). It seems that this company has taken a leaf out of the tech industry's approach to client contracts (i.e: in exchange for accessing this service, you have to agree to a completely unreasonable set of conditions that is totally one-sided in the provider's favour). You did the right thing in turning it down.

  • Indent think that specifying „only“ every 6 month is any worse than specifying „at companies discretion“. However not being notified seems to be strange. Especially if the info collected (like credit score) might as well be useful to the employee. – eckes Mar 18 at 20:01
  • @eckes every 6 months is a legal requirement for teachers in the UK AFAIK. I suppose it's a bit different if it's just to abide by the law. – 520 Mar 19 at 10:36
  • @520 and there's a massive difference, in my opinion, between "if you join our teacher's association, a background check is done every 6 months, between these days" and "I now have a right, whenever I choose, for whatever reason I choose, to go snoop in your life and run a background check". Now, background checks cots money, so I'd be surprised if the company truly abuses this... but if they don't abuse it, why not be more transparent about it? – Patrice Mar 19 at 12:35
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    @patrice there is also the legal aspect. If you signed a form saying you consented to background checks whenever, there is no legal ramification compared to when you authorise it only for such-and-such occasions. The difference is, if some corrupt individual does this with the former contract in place, the victim has zero recourse so long as they can lie that they were doing it on behalf of the company. – 520 Mar 19 at 14:53
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    @520 yes but I guess that refers to looking up the gouvernmental teachers status / barring service and not doing other inquiries? gov.uk/guidance/teacher-status-checks-information-for-employers – eckes Mar 19 at 16:12
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Your decision was right.

Background checks are something normal for a hiring process but giving consent for continuous background checks is unusual and concerning.

When I was hired I had to agree to one background check with the possibility for more background checks in the future but only with notification and me giving consent to each individual check.

But those additionally checks are understandable as my employer does have running contracts with military and government institutions, a lot of patents and I do have access to a lot of information.

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Is this common practice nowadays? Did I over-react?

Background checks are not cheap and employers are seldom eager to run them more than necessary.

This is not uncommon though; it's standard in my industry and I'd be surprised if this wasn't part of boilerplate American employment contracts in 2019 (right up there with mandatory arbitration and non-competes). In unilateral contracts where you don't have your own attorney challenging the terms, they are always written so the house reserves and retains all rights to maximize their chances of winning in a dispute.

the next level manager basically saying that it is the company's policy but that it is never abused and asking me to reconsider.

The purpose of this clause is to find cause to qualify/disqualify you for promotions or continued employment. It exists to be used or abused in any way the employer sees fit.

Consider these scenarios:

  • You falsely claim you have degree X from university Y. The verification vendor used in 2019 may not detect this, so you are hired. The company wants the right to revalidate your background with new data in 2059 before promoting you to management/senior management. After 40 years working for the company, they discover your fraud and terminate you instead of promoting you.
  • You are hired in 2019 to distribute coupons. In 2022, you are arrested for DUI. In 2024, you are looking to move into a position that involves driving for the company. The company re-verifies your background and the arrest for drunk driving surfaces. Though unfair (no conviction!), the company may not want to accept that risk. No promotion for you.
  • Regardless of at-will employment status, the company wants to fire you, lack cause and don't want to pay severance or raise their unemployment insurance premium. They run your background, uncover some misdemeanor arrest/conviction for shoplifting or domestic abuse that occurred after you were hired and use "ethics violations" or "workplace safety" as cause for termination. Being fired for cause (as opposed to laid off) generally disqualifies you from collecting unemployment. Laws against this vary by state, as will your success in challenging such a termination.

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