Monday, January 07, 2008

Ask the Administrator: Background Checks

A new correspondent, currently on the administrative job market, writes:

To what extent is my candidacy for administrative positions hindered by (1)my personal bankruptcy filing in early 2007 and (2) my termination from my previous position as VPAA at a prominent but troubled proprietary institution in spring of 2006? The bankruptcy came about due to health and family problems that were, in truth, insurmountable at the time without going deeply into debt. The termination was a result of word getting back to the proprietary school's corporate office that I was interviewing with competitors and my refusal to commit to staying with the proprietary school until it had resolved its probationary status with its regional accreditor. To frame the termination, I would point out that I had received a healthy salary adjustment at my annual review two months prior to termination; I had never been disciplined or "written up" for poor performance of my VPAA duties at this institution; and the CEO of the proprietary school chain about six months previously had named me to a corporation-wide committee to revamp marketing efforts to attract more students. The school also paid me several months' salary to go away quietly.

I ended up taking a mid-level academic support position with a state university in the fall of 2006 for a greatly reduced salary. Subsequently I have been one of three finalists for much better positions (VPAA at a large proprietary school, corporate online dean for a regionally accredited for-profit, and associate dean for assessment at a major urban community college), but in each instance the potential employer's interest in me vaporized and I never heard from them again after on-site interviews that I thought went extremely well.

A higher-ed headhunter with whom I have worked for many years has suggested to me what I suspect is indeed the case: when potential employers run a background check on me prior to making an offer, the bankruptcy and employment termination are killing the deal before it materializes.

So here is my question: do hiring committees at public institutions run background checks as assiduously as for-profits, and if they do, do my two red flags carry as much weight with publics as they appear to with for-profits? If that is so, then I might as well resign myself to staying exactly where I am (decent university, semi-interesting work, abysmally low pay) until retirement.

Nobody said higher ed would be pretty.

The short answer is generally yes. In my neck of the woods, background checks are routine. Prospective employers can get information on criminal records, credit ratings, and the like. (I've never probed to find out what 'and the like' actually means. Evil HR Lady, are you out there?) How they'll use that information will vary depending on what they find, what position they're hiring for, how much they want you, and local culture.

Given the scary prospects of legal liability and/or bad publicity, colleges have to be relatively careful when they hire, especially for high visibility positions (such as VPAA). We had a case recently – and I really can't go into any more details than this – in which a background check revealed that a new employee had lied on his application about a recent criminal conviction. When we found out, we fired him on the spot. (We have language on the application spelling out that falsifying information on the application is grounds for termination.) Given the nature of the offense, we probably wouldn't have hired him in the first place if we had known, but the coverup turned a judgment call into a slam dunk.

I've also had job applicants reveal, in interviews, long-ago convictions on minor infractions. In those cases, given some temporal distance from the offenses and long subsequent clean records, I made the call (in consultation with HR) that those convictions were not deal-breakers. In those cases, the applicants were well-advised to come clean, since it neutralized any issue of a 'coverup' and allowed them to frame the issue.

If this sounds creepily imperious, I'll give an example. Would you hire a professor who had a single DUI five years ago, and has been otherwise clean? What about one year ago? What about three in the past five years? What about one DUI, one 'public drunkenness,' and one 'disorderly conduct'? In the abstract, it's tempting to insist on bright-line rules, but people present all kinds of different histories.

In a perfect world, the only information that would be used against you would be information of obvious relevance. For example, I doubt that many people with argue against barring convicted child molesters from working in daycare centers. But most cases aren't that obvious.

Bankruptcy and termination, for example. Neither is illegal in itself. (There are illegal terminations, but it doesn't sound like yours was. Unfair, yes. Illegal, no.) Either could reflect bad behavior or bad judgment, or just bad luck. The two could easily be linked – loss of job leads to loss of income, which leads to bankruptcy, so we're really talking about one thing, rather than two. Elizabeth Warren, of Harvard Law School, recently pointed out that roughly half of all personal bankruptcies in the U.S. result from medical crises, so the story of reduced-income-plus-medical-crisis-equaled-bankruptcy has a certain plausibility to it.

From an employer's perspective, though, I can see where doubt would be cast. If you were truly an innocent victim of circumstance, why didn't you say so? Why did you wait until these came up in background checks? Yes, you're within your legal rights to keep these to yourself, but they're within their legal rights not to hire you. If you want them to see past the bankruptcy and termination, my advice would be to bring them up yourself, so you can control the story.

(One hurdle you might face is the relative ignorance of most of traditional higher ed regarding proprietaries. Having worked in a proprietary, I find the idea that you'd be fired for interviewing elsewhere entirely plausible. In much of the rest of higher ed, 'counteroffers' are often the only way to get a raise, so interviewing elsewhere is normal behavior. You might have to explain that, if you're dealing with folks who've never worked in a proprietary.)

An employer might be worried that you're a loose cannon, or that you couldn't be trusted with money (“if he can't manage his own money, he certainly couldn't manage ours”), or that you have some other underlying issue (substance abuse, most likely) that would cause problems over the long run, or that you're just flaky. That may all sound a bit far-fetched, but if you were competing with another candidate of similar strengths without any black marks on her record, well, who would you hire? Given the option, why would an employer take the chance?

There was a time, not long ago, when it was relatively possible to control the information that a hiring committee saw. This is no longer true. Technology has made information gathering far, far easier, and the stakes are higher than ever. Assume this stuff will get out, and find ways to de-fang it in advance. If you don't fill in the blanks, their speculation will.

I don't claim that it's fair, or wise, or that past behavior is a perfect predictor of future behavior. But this stuff is out there, and people will react to it in predictable ways. Define the story, or it will define you.

Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.