Debtors' Prison

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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.

Object...nicely.
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."

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."