How Bad Credit Can Dim Your Job Prospects

You’ve networked your way into a job interview. Your background is perfect and your references are impeccable. An offer may be coming. Then the hiring manager says they just need to do one more thing: run a credit check. Uh oh.

Depending on the kind of position you’re looking for, a high credit-card balance and a few late payments — which may have happened because you’ve been out of work — now threaten your chances of receiving a job offer.

Forty-two percent of employers, including the U.S. government, run credit checks on job candidates, according to a 2006 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. Most often credit checks are due diligence on potential employees who would have some contact with money, from CFO to clerk.

But there is anecdotal evidence that some companies use pre-employment credit screening to gauge a worker’s judgment and character, regardless of job duties. A personnel management company recently told the Los Angeles Times that credit checks help companies hire “the highest-quality individuals.”

“Employers look for evidence that people haven’t made good decisions, or are in debt, because they see those as motivations to be dishonest,” says Debra Cohen, chief knowledge officer at the Society for Human Resource Management. “However, the vast majority of organizations only look at credit reports when it’s relevant to the job.”

Do Your Homework

Even if you won’t be handling money directly or indirectly, assume a potential employer will check your credit, says Dayana Yochim, a consumer finance expert at The Motley Fool. “Even if your employer doesn’t end up doing a credit check, your insurance companies, lenders, and landlords will, so it’s important to manage your credit well.”

Experts agree on a few tips that can keep even a bad credit rating from hurting your job prospects:

Know what you’re signing. Sometimes you may unknowingly sign an agreement authorizing a credit check because it gets lost in a stack of documents that’s dumped in front of you in a pre-employment interview. If you don’t know what you’re expected to sign, ask. And don’t be afraid to ask why the credit check may be relevant to the job.

Don’t be surprised. It’s important to know what employers might be looking at. A company may query any one of the credit reporting bureaus — Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion — so it’s important for you to check them all as well. But don’t be fooled by highly advertised “free” credit report services; often they’re not free at all.

Fix errors. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group found that as many as 80% of credit reports contain errors, and one quarter of the time the flubs were serious enough to result in people being denied favorable interest rates, and in some cases, jobs. If you find errors, it’s up to you to contact the credit reporting company and document the correct information. Understand that changes to your credit reports can take 30 days or more to show up, so plan ahead.

Be honest. As you would with gaps in your resume, be upfront and proactive about explaining dings to your credit, according to Cohen. “Tell the employer, ‘This is what happened, and this is what I’m doing to fix it,'” Cohen says.

Don’t panic. Al Sparaco, president of Baker Street Associates, a pre-employment screening company, tells Yahoo! HotJobs that very few companies are likely to automatically disqualify job candidates based on bad credit. “Our clients use the report to start a discussion with applicants, not to weed them out. But if you say your credit is great and the employer finds out it isn’t, lying about it could disqualify you.”

Develop a Long-Term Plan

Keeping your credit score high can help ease your mind when you’re looking for a job. How do you ensure your credit report is (nearly) spotless?
Pay on time and don’t use most of your available credit. These are the two areas employers would care about most, because they speak to your ability to manage money and be responsible.

Check your credit limits. Companies are lowering credit limits on even their best customers. If you thought you had an available line of $10,000 and a balance of $4,900, and suddenly your credit line is lowered to $5,000, your credit report will now say you’re maxed out. If that happens, pay down the balance as quickly as possible.

Don’t cut up credit cards. “Keep all your cards in play even if to just charge something small every couple of months,” Yochim says. Unused credit can quickly go into “hibernation,” meaning the lender has no activity to report to the credit bureaus, not even positive news about your credit use.

Don’t close your oldest accounts. Having an account that goes back many years helps your credit longevity as well as your debt-to-available-credit ratio.

Don’t pay a company to fix your credit, Yochim says. “Even if they promise to wipe it clean, it’s just a temporary fix. Only you can improve and manage your credit.”

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