Hiring Minds Want to Know

Why, exactly, did you leave your last job? Minnesota lawmakers argue over the wisdom of opening personnel files to prospective employers

It may be a bit of a stretch, he continues, but without prescribed safeguards, imagine an enterprising mind that could easily gather data on a few, a few dozen, or a few thousand individuals, develop a computer bank of their personnel files, then sell the information to a third party. "It's happened before," he contends, referring to a recent case in Louisiana in which "the names of people who'd applied for workers compensation were being put on a 'blacklist' that sold to local employers." Although that incident ended when law enforcement broke up the operation, Neumeister says the practice of selling personal information, including employment history files, remains more widespread than one might imagine: "There are public harvesters that use public data to build national data banks--from background checks, tenant screening companies, and credit companies. The fear is how open this data is to others."

Neumeister is also concerned about the vagueness of the term "illegal conduct" within the legislation. What qualifies? "It's too subjective," he argues. "This could mean anything from an act that results in a police arrest to something a boss considers inappropriate at the workplace." And what if the conduct was never prosecuted--and the employee, therefore, wasn't granted due process or given the chance to defend his or her innocence? What if a former supervisor just didn't like you? For Neumeister and others who question the bill's potential to throw the doors open to all sorts of nasty name-calling and retribution, passing it into law is an invitation for disgruntled former employers to punish ex-workers for behavior that may not be relevant in their subsequent positions. "In order for this bill to be fair to both sides," Neumeister says, "it has to be clear about what kind of information can be released and under what conditions." This one, he argues, isn't.

The bill cleared the House last week, and was scheduled to be discussed by the Senate Jobs, Energy and Community Development Committee on March 30. By all accounts, the bill is expected to pass. Still, Neumeister says, chances are good that his efforts will pay off: "Laws like this have been passed in 30 other states, and [past employers] are still not saying more than name, rank, and serial number," he chuckles, adding that the possibility of being dragged into court will continue to keep business owners, on the advice of their cost-conscious attorneys, from telling all.

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