Why You Shouldn’t Judge a Candidate by Their Background Check

Imagine that you have one opening you’re trying to fill, and 16 eager applicants aged 17 to 22 — all with more than adequate skills for the job — awaiting their second interview.

Before the interviews begin, you discover that among those candidates are five recovering addicts, two pregnant unwed teens, three who are on probation, eight high school dropouts, four who have earned only a G.E.D., and one who’s recovering from a traumatic brain injury.

And those issues are just the ones listed on the background checks of the young people you are about to meet. There are many that aren’t listed, to be sure.

However, due to a clerical mix-up, you won’t know which label applies to which interviewee. All you are told is that, while each applicant has the skill set you are looking for, all 16 have been labeled as individuals who have “barriers to employment.”

“Prejudging” those I was going to work with

Bet you start to sweat as you think to yourself, “OK, just get through this and politely dismiss each one.

That’s exactly the way I felt.

This was the description provided to me by a county workforce center for a group I was about to spend an entire day with. The only exception to the scenario above is that I was not there to interview them; but rather, I was brought in to train them and improve their core work ethic values or “soft skills.”

Working with young people who have barriers to employment is not something I do on a routine basis. In fact, it’s not something I do at all.

However, it was important to me to see how far the work ethic curriculum I initially created seven years ago has progressed after numerous revisions by my team at the Center for Work Ethic Development. It wouldn’t have been fair to test it — or to accurately assess my own chops as a speaker and trainer — had the audience been comprised of Eagle Scouts and National Merit Scholars.

I went into the day prejudiced, which is to say that I was “prejudging” the people I was told I was going to work with. I am embarrassed to admit the adjectives that ran through my mind as I lay in my bed the night before dreading the day that followed.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Not about the past, but about the future

The group of 16 were among the brightest, most energetic, impassioned, and focused young people I have ever met. And yes, this includes all the Eagle Scouts and Merit Scholars I’ve had the opportunity to work with over the years.

Sure, everyone in the group had mistakes in their past that now were a matter of public record. In many cases, those mistakes would follow them in to every job opening they interviewed for the rest of their lives.

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Thankfully, our day together wasn’t about their past, it was about their future.

I was brought in as the instructor, but I was the one who learned the most. For starters, I discovered the seven core work ethic values that are in demand by every employer in every industry are not new to these individuals, and they are not lying dormant inside them. Quite the opposite, actually.

The young people I worked with admit to their mistakes and each has learned important lessons from them. They are very determined to prove to prospective employers who will give them a chance that they are positive, reliable, professional, ambitious, respectful, honest, and deeply grateful for every opportunity they are presented.

Introspection leads to a revelation

I am not in HR, nor do I interview and hire a lot of employees in my company. But if I did, I can promise you that I wouldn’t be frightened off because of a background check. I’d rely less on what was revealed by a report of their past and instead look a little deeper into the promise of what their eyes told me about their future.

And if you were in the room with me last Saturday, you’d be of a like mind.

One of my best friends is a savvy business investor who refuses to go into business with anyone who doesn’t have a bankruptcy in his/her past. He says that people who’ve made mistakes and have had to recover from them make the best partners because they aren’t like those Pollyanna-like, naive sorts who expect everything to happen without a great deal of hard work, sweat, and personal sacrifice.

I think he’s on to something there.

This was originally published on Eric Chester’s Reviving Work Ethic blog. His new book is Reviving Work Ethic: A Leader’s Guide to Ending Entitlement and Restoring Pride in the Emerging Workforce. For copies, visit revivingworkethic.com.

Eric Chester is a leading voice in the global dialogue on employee engagement, and building a world-class workplace culture. He's an in-the-trenches researcher on the topic of the millennial mindset, and the dynamics of attracting, managing, motivating and retaining top talent. Chester is a Hall-of-Fame keynote speaker and the author of 4 leadership books including his newly released Amazon #1 Bestseller On Fire at Work: How Great Companies Ignite Passion in their People without Burning Them Out.  Learn more at EricChester.com and follow him at @eric_chester


1 Comment on “Why You Shouldn’t Judge a Candidate by Their Background Check

  1. Well that…and many of the items you listed are protected by anti-discrimination laws (ADA, Title VII, etc.) either directly or due to disparate impact considerations. The ones on probation being the only likely exception.

    Thanks for sharing an interesting article and another reason to focus on skills.

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