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Employers may have a trove of details on job candidates. Here’s how workers can control the narrative.

Employers may have a trove of details on job candidates. Here’s how workers can control the narrative.
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But business and legal experts say job candidates are not entirely powerless. That’s especially true during the “Great Resignation,” when employees are job-hopping for better opportunities.

“The pendulum has swung a lot more to employees having power in ways they didn’t have before,” says Stacey B. Lee, an associate professor of law and ethics at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School.

So what exactly can employers learn about a candidate, and what control do workers have in addressing any discrepancies or background information that was obtained behind the scenes? Here’s what business experts had to say about some of your burning questions.

What information can employers find on you?

How much an employer can find on an employee is entirely dependent on the company, the services they use, the time they’re investing and what they consider to be important. Assume employers know everything and be prepared to shape the narrative, business experts said.

An employer might just double check to make sure a candidate worked at a company for a specific period of time and nothing more. Conversely, it could seek information on a person’s role, responsibilities, work relationships and online presence, as well as publicly available information that could include criminal charges, information about a person’s income, debt, financial troubles or property ownership.

And of course, anything a candidate publicly posts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs or other personal websites is a fair game. That means an employer might discover a candidate’s political views, whether the person has voted controversial statements or the groups to which they belong.

“We are living out loud,” Lee said. Employers could know “anything.”

Beyond using verification services, employment databases and Internet search tools, employers may uncover additional details by calling a candidate’s former employers. As a result, they may discover dirt about soured employment relationships, project failures, shortcomings or personality conflicts.

What should candidates do if employers discover troubling information?

Candidates don’t have to settle for the narrative that employers may create during their research, business experts said.

Workers can drive the conversation by showing proof of their successes to combat previous failures. They can refer to good work relationships to explain how a conflict may have been an isolated incident. Most importantly, they can focus on the growth they’ve had from any previous blips.

“It’s similar to when someone says ‘what are your weaknesses?’” says Katie Cassarly, senior associate director of career services at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College. “You want to focus the most on how you are improving and how that adds value to the company.”

In some cases, it may make sense to disclose concerns that the employer could run into ahead of time, especially if the employer is calling former bosses, Lee said. Candidates can offer other references who can speak about skills directly related to the new job.

“You can’t prevent an employer from calling someone,” Lee said. Instead, “I’d say, ‘If you want a real gauge on who I am as an employee and what I bring this [other reference] is your best bet.”’”

Diane Burton, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said candidates should be conscientious about the networks they build and work to maintain those, as they could be valuable when applying for a new job.

“It is incumbent on you, as a worker, to have references who can verify your skills and tasks even if they are no longer at the firm,” she said. “This is networking 101.”

What can employers learn about your salary and how can you drive the conversation?

The first thing to know is it is legal in most states for employers to ask about current or previous salaries. In states such as New York and California, employers are restricted in what information they can request including salary history. But there are still ways they may be able to get those details.

If a conversation leads the candidate to voluntarily offer that information, then it’s fair game. And in some states, employers can ask about salary information at later points in the hiring process, said Mark Neuberger, of counsel at Wisconsin-based law firm Foley & Lardner LLP.

“Even the states that restrict it, a lot of them don’t completely ban it,” he said. The laws are “kind of all over the place.”

Neuberger said that before candidates begin interviewing, they should familiarize themselves with local laws, especially as remote workers look to other states for employment. Most employment laws can be found on state governments’ websites.

Employers may also be able to find salary information via third-party verification services. Equifax said information it provides employers could include income and salary. But the service said only 1 percent of the verifications it performs include or income details and some jurisdiction laws preventing prospective employers or background screeners from requesting that salary information. Consumers can access their employment data reports via the Equifax website, the company said. The report details the data Equifax has obtained and specifies which entities have requested any piece of information.

But candidates can still drive salary negotiations even if their prospective employer has their salary history, business experts said. The key is focusing on the job, the value an employee brings, the market rate for the role and the job’s other benefits.

“If [the salary for the role] is not posted, the first question is what is the salary range that is budgeted?” Burton said. “So, flip the question.”

Candidates who have been underpaid in their previous jobs may find salary negotiations even tougher if their employer knows their pay history. But Lee said candidates should remember the value they bring and focus on what the employer stands to gain. Come equipped with references and proof to back up any claims made during the interview, she said. And if salary history continues to come up, they can redirect.

“I would say, ‘We can talk about the value I made before or about the value I’m bringing,’” she said. “’I believe I’m worth X amount.’ Then I’m going to slap a serene look on my face, look totally confident and not say another word.”

Cassarly said the best way to be prepared for uncomfortable salary questions is to do the research, craft answers beforehand and even role-play with friends or colleagues to help simulate a real interview.

But experts agree on two things: Candidates don’t have to give up their salary histories. And they should be prepared to respond to salary information employers may have already obtained.

What if a candidate’s information doesn’t match data from a verification service?

Sometimes potential employers may find a discrepancy in a candidate’s history, due to simple human error or because the employer stores data differently with third-parties.

If this happens, one option is for candidates to try to find out the official title their employer submits externally and use that verbiage on their resume. Candidates can explain their actual title or responsibilities in the description of their job and potentially avoid slowing down a background check, Cassarly said.

Alternatively, Cassarly says workers should keep a file with offer letters of their former jobs. If any discrepancy occurs, they have documentation to prove that they actually held the title they claim. If employees are on good terms when exiting, they could ask their former human resources department or supervisor for written confirmation of their role.

Lee said candidates can also turn to external sources for verification. For example, did candidates present at a conference that documented their titles? Take screenshots if your name and title is listed on the company’s website.

If employees have no way to verify their titles, they can point to open source repositories, portfolios of work or even suggest ways to demonstrate their skills.

What should we keep in mind as companies research us?

There are some easy things we can do to make sure we don’t run into trouble when applying for a job.

Experts say we should do a simple Google search on ourselves. Is there information we don’t want out there? Can we control that? Similarly, what does our social media say about ourselves? Are there any current or years-long problematic posts? Is there a website showing off our latest work?

“You have more control about what information that’s out there about you than you realize,” Burton said.

Candidates can also pull their details from third-party services that offer the ability to see what story it tells, Lee said. Do they have a good credit rating? Do they have gaps in their employment? How do they intend to respond to those issues should they come up?

“The best way to be prepared is to know what is discoverable by other folks,” Lee said. “If there’s something [negative] out there, how do I reframe the narrative?”

And though the employer will be looking for potential red flags, candidates should do the same, Lee said. While candidates may not want to confront an employer when they are asking a question against their local laws or digging into details that feel irrelevant, they should use that knowledge when considering whether they want the job.

Finally, candidates should try to avoid putting all their eggs in one basket.

“Are you willing to walk away?” Cassarly said. “If so, you may have a little more negotiating power.”

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