In Hiring, To Avoid "Big Brother" Quit Being "Nasty Sister"

By Brendan B. Read, Senior Contributing Editor  |  June 01, 2011

“In order to be prepared to complete our online pre-screen questionnaire and application you will need your address history for the past seven years…”

So is this wording for a Defense Department, Homeland Security or other similar agency or law enforcement position, or for one of their contractors, where the individuals would have access to classified and other sensitive information, restricted areas and/or have power over lives? Or for jobs that handles and/or manages dangerous chemicals, explosives, nuclear materials or weapons that could have unfunny consequences if the “bad guys” get their hands on them? Would the work entail getting into the critical agencies’ departments’ and suppliers’ underlying IT systems, like the help desk that I once visited at a NORAD facility that fixed the systems that enable aircraft (and missile) detection, identification – and response?


It is for contact center work – handling customer service and sales. This wording is part of boilerplate language on the application forms for a large well-known firm that is best left unidentified.

What, pray tell, is the overriding necessity for this “Nasty Sister” – the corporate sibling to government “Big Brother – intrusion into individual privacy? Are contact centers hotbeds of crime? Are agents and their unwitting supervisors putting their nations at grave risk by deliberately or carelessly having information fall into the wrong hands? Have there been widespread outbreaks of ID, asset and corporate documents theft, insider trading, reputations destroyed, property damaged and lives lost and individuals maimed via unscrupulous contact center staff?

Unless a job requires high level security clearance where there are clearly identified threats it is none of employers’ business to know where applicants/employees have lived. No more than it is for them to know their credit histories: which the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) is cracking down on by suing Kaplan (see March’s Logout) as it unfairly discriminates against applicants.

Contact center agents are arguably one of the most carefully and extensively watched positions there is. Any risk factors – however slim – are mitigated by the extensive array of already-required and proven call and contact monitoring, data blanking and IT security tools such as secure desktops.

One can make the argument that “there is no such thing as too little information on prospective employees”.  Also that “we know the risk is slight but what happens if something does happen?”

The problem with this logic that it is the equivalent to “there is no such thing as too little security”, such as requiring reception staff to wear Kevlar vests and having Uzi-toting guards patrolling call floors. It covers the butts of lazy, and/or incompetent management, who can then abdicate their responsibility to properly assess risks and fairly screen individuals as individuals to vendors who profit from this insecurity and paranoia.

Requiring past personal addresses and credit checks are just two more of the many examples of dumb HR tricks that will rightly and repeatedly bite employers who use them in the hindquarters. Just ask Kaplan.

Don’t be surprised if the EEOC and/or lawmakers target the address requirements. Why? Because applicants may be denied employment because they felt – arguably with justification – they had to lie about where they had lived. Like the woman who is staying in a shelter because her spouse had been beating her up. Or the new American who chose not to disclose they had lived with relatives who were illegal immigrants.

Personal privacy intrusions are also counterproductive especially in already high-churn sectors like contact centers. As the employment picture brightens these give more reasons for the good agents – especially those that have needed topnotch skills like SMS/text and social media handling – to say “I’m outta here” while discouraging potential star performers. These invasions add resentment – and fear – on top of the too-common poor training, petty supervision and low wages and benefits in already stressful jobs that can shrink net output and engender a “getting back at the boss” culture. Talk about self-fulfilling prophecies…

No firm likes “Big Brother” interfering with their business. If they and/or their counterparts quit being “Nasty Sister” by violating individual privacy there will be less need for the sibling to step on their toes.

Brendan B. Read is TMCnet’s Senior Contributing Editor. To read more of Brendan’s articles, please visit his columnist page.