Debtors' Prison

As if it weren't tough enough already finding a job in this economy. Now you have to worry about your bad credit holding you back.

DIANA KRITSONIS HAS been looking for work for more than two years now, struggling to raise three daughters on her own in Renton, Wash., after losing her $75,000 job as a computer programmer. Her biggest foe in landing a job? Lately, it's been her own debt.

Having racked up big bills on a variety of charge cards while being out of work, Kritsonis is finding that more and more employers are checking out her credit history. Whether she was applying for "anything" at Costco, the appointment-setter job at the local hair salon or a tech job at the University of Washington, her prospective employers wanted to know whether she was paying her bills before considering taking her on. "My credit is hampering me in finding a place to work," she says.

If you thought your finances were your own business, think again. The cultural shift caused by Sept. 11 and the glut of accounting scandals has firms double- and triple-checking every little thing about a job applicant. And that can include a probing of your credit record as a measure of your trustworthiness. Generally speaking, positions that involve access to money are the ones that require a credit check. That could include everyone from CFOs and cashiers to customer-service reps who handle credit card orders and pretty much anyone in the financial services sector. "If they can't handle their own money, I don't want them handling mine," explains David Cook, vice president of Alpharetta, Ga.Ðbased employee-screening firm ChoicePoint Workplace Solutions.

But beyond finance-related jobs, you could still have your debt history examined. "We're seeing it more and more," says Suffern, N.Y., career coach Sande Foster. Even with volunteers. In Orange County, Calif., scores of Red Cross workers recently resigned en masse rather than have their credit put under the microscope.

So how best to deal with a credit probe if you have a spotty record? First of all, keep in mind that firms can't dive into your finances without your permission. On your job application there will likely be a box to mark off, giving the employer the right to conduct all manner of background checks. Of course, refusing to comply, while within your rights, could stop the interview dead in its tracks. Given that, here are a few tips:

Do your own background check.
Almost everyone has some debt in his life, whether from student loans or a mortgage. So it's not necessarily your debt level screeners look for, it's how well you manage it. Moral of the story: Make your payments on time, every time. Though repairing a poor credit score will take years, at least you won't be driving it down further. Check for errors, too. "Mistakes are made all the time on credit reports," says Foster. Contact credit-reporting firms such as Experian, Equifax and TransUnion to find out — for a fee of around $12 or $13 — what they're telling potential bosses about you.

Trend Watch
Healthy — and wealthy couch potatoes, take note. Shedding pounds, stopping smoking and getting on that treadmill isn't just good for your health; it can also be a bonus for your pocketbook. Desperate to get staffers to shape up — and avoid huge health bills down the road — more and more companies and their insurers are offering wellness programs, along with some tasty financial incentives for signing up. It might be something as minor as providing flu shots or cholesterol screens gratis. Or it might be a more comprehensive program that monitors your progress and provides a cash reward for participating. One example: At O'Fallen, Mo.Ðbased VSM Abrasives, employees get $25 per quarter, plus a yearly bonus of another $25 and a day off, if they are able to keep lost pounds off.
— Chris Taylor

If the position has nothing to do with handling money, you could tactfully point that out. You might convince the interviewer your credit is not relevant, especially since such a check could potentially expose a company to charges of discrimination. "Women and minorities tend to have lower credit scores than white males," says attorney and HRconsultant Wendy Bliss of Colorado Springs, Colo. "So employers have to be a bit careful about what position they're requiring credit checks for."

My Favorite Interview Question
"What's the funniest thing that has ever happened to you?"
— Amy Giglio, Supervisor of Employment Services, Aflac Why She Asks It:
"It's an icebreaker, and it catches people off guard. One time, a candidate recounted a skiing misadventure. Midway downhill, she lost control and 'sat down' to avoid flattening a friend skiing with her. Instead of stopping, she kept gliding on her rear, landing in a freezing creek. The story showed that she could laugh at herself. Some people will try to relate their answer to work, telling me what they think I want to hear. She didn't do that, which shows me that her answers to other questions are genuine."

Think preemptively.
If you have a tarnished credit record that an employer is sure to catch, discuss the circumstances with the hiring manager up front. Maybe you had an illness in the family and you had to cover the medical bills. In a tough economy, an interviewer will likely be sympathetic to an honest, rational explanation. "You want them to understand exactly what transpired in the past and how it's being corrected," says Foster. Save it for your follow-up interviews, when you're close to landing the job and the potential employer is likely to begin digging into your past.

Such candor paid off for Nicole Mussey in remarkable fashion. Mussey, 24, had charged more than $18,000 after her mom fell ill with cancer, putting "groceries, medical bills, everything" on her six cards. Bad credit tripped her up more than once as she looked for work, including getting her rejected for a job at a Kaufman's department store.

But when applying for a position as an intelligence analyst at the National Security Agency in Maryland — she'd received her master's in international security — she explained how she'd gotten into the credit mess, and she had all the receipts for the medical bills to back up her story. She'd also signed up with a debt-management program, Consolidated Credit Counseling Services, to start whittling down those bills. "I'd thought my bad credit was going to mean I could never get the job I wanted," Mussey remembers. So when the NSA called in July to hire her, she says, "I just started bawling into the phone."

Type Casting
From the Overachiever to the Slacker, archetypes have long permeated America's offices. But in this brutal economy, outplacement specialists Challenger, Gray & Christmas have identified a few new personality types emerging.
— Chris Taylor

Sitting Bull: A retirement-age worker who won't leave, thus blocking younger workers from advancing.

Wilted Lettuce: Candidates who start interviewing after a long layoff, having burned through their severance pay.

Sad Grad: A college grad with lots of debt and no prospects, who's still living with the parents.

Job Stalker: An applicant who uses aggressive methods to land interviews.

People Churner: A terrible boss who can't seem to retain key staffers.

PostTraumatic Job Switcher: Someone who changed fields after Sept. 11 in search of a more meaningful career.

Up-Titler: An employee who gets a better job title in lieu of a pay raise.