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Help! A Job Application Form is Asking For My Social Security Number! Is That Legal?
If you're reading this, you've probably been asked this very unsettling question by a potential employer, HR department or on a job application form. In this day and age, warnings about preventing identity theft are everywhere, with a ton of conflicting information out there to confuse and bamboozle the humble jobseeker.
If you're here seeking quick answers, the unfortunate answer to this question is yes, employers are allowed to ask for your Social Security number when you apply for a job with them. It is well within their legal right as an employer, and is common practice at many corporations.
The question "why do they need this number upfront?" however, is more complex, and just a little bit sad.
In the vast majority of cases, the reason the electronic job application form requires a social security number is that the software engineers who designed it, for whatever reasons known only to themselves, decided to use the SSN as an industry-standard unique identifying number.
It's an obvious choice, on paper at least: everyone in the US has one, each one is unique, and it therefore requires no clever number systems to make sure every job application has a unique identifying number.
This may have seemed like a fantastic idea ten or fifteen years ago, when many of these applicant tracking systems (ATS's) were first designed, but data hacking and identity theft were not, back then, conducted on the level and scale they are today. For a recruiter these days, asking a potential candidate for their social security number may get you the same look of politely stunned horror as if you'd asked for their personal credit card number. (After all, that's a unique number too, right?)
This also puts you at a distinct disadvantage if you want to apply for a job but have a wish to not have your personal privacy invaded, concerns about what might happen to your information, or if you are a jobseeker who does not have a social security number for a legitimate reason, such as being an overseas applicant with family or career aspirations in America.
What Do Companies Actually Use my Social Security Number For?
In reality, there are only a small number of instances where a social security number is required for a real purpose, rather than just acting as a glorified tracking number.
For instance, jobs that require an in-depth background check, such as school teaching, truck driving, legal professions and so on do need to ask. In these cases, companies have a responsibility to look into their potential employee's backgrounds for safety and security reasons. If a company hires a headmaster to teach young children or a driver to be put in charge of a 20-ton Big Rig, they want to make really, really sure the person has no criminal background or a history of substance abuse.
Another case of where absolute proof of identity might be required would be for government, police force, CIA or high-security engineering jobs such as Boeing or NASA, where a faked identity could be a threat to national security.
Another example of a job where a corporation might want to delve into a person's credit history would be a banking or finance job, where being good with money or giving financial advice would be an integral part of the position. After all, you wouldn't want to hire a Loan Adviser who has exceptionally bad credit or a history that includes red flags like bankruptcy or many unpaid loans.
Aside from those kinds of jobs, there really isn't a convincing reason for employers to ask for your SSN upfront before interviewing you or offering you the job. Once you have the job, that is when you'll need to supply it, so they can pay you and process your SS payments.
Are There Any States Where Asking For My SSN is Illegal?
Sorry, no. It is 100% completely legal for employers in all 50 states to ask you for your Social Security Number at any stage of the job application process.
In most cases other than those mentioned above, however, it's technically not required until after hire, when the company will need your SSN to report and process your Social Security account contributions, or complete a W4. Most companies who ask for it upfront are usually doing so thoughtlessly, because that's the way things have always been done at their company.
Most common offenders are large and long-established corporations, who have the money to spend on background screening. Most likely they are rarely challenged on this, due to job hunter's fears that questioning their motives will raise a red flag on their application and maybe even exclude them from the running.
Says Nick Corcodilos of AskTheHeadhunter in a recent industry newsletter headed, "does HR go to far when screening candidates?"
"With thousands of people applying for each job and the jobless rate for skilled and white-collar workers at a recent all-time high, the applicants, like sheep being led to the slaughter, will subject themselves to almost any practice and jump through almost any hoop to get a job. The theory is that any job is better than no job."
With this horrifying image firmly in mind, it's certainly prudent for any job hunter with a modicum of self-respect to slow down and start asking questions when faced with that flashing red 'Required Field' box.
Here are some good questions to ask:
- Can you tell me how my SSN will be used?
- Can I have a copy of any data obtained using my SSN?
- Will my SSN be disclosed to any third parties?
- How will my job application form be stored?
- What security precautions have you taken to ensure the safety of my personal data?
- What happens if I decline to give you my SSN number?
- Is the provision of my SSN mandatory to this job application, or can you accept another form of identification?
Any company worth it's salt will at least attempt to answer your questions, and will do so politely and with honesty. If a company is dismissive, condescending or rude in response, it's seriously worth reconsidering your desire to work there.
Adds the Society for Human Resource Management: "(an applicant's Social Security number) should be requested separate from the employment application, and safeguards should be in place to protect and keep this information confidential. Employers should also implement procedures for safe disposal of this information once an employment decision has been made."
How to (Politely) Decline a Request for a SSN
If you feel uncomfortable providing your SSN, you can offer any of the following legally recognized alternative means of identification:
- Driver's license number
- Visa number or Alien Registration number (for nonimmigrant visa or Green Card holders)
- Current and last 5 year's home addresses
- Student ID (if still valid)
If you're confronted with an electronic job application form that stubbornly refuses to let you submit or save it without filling in that pesky SSN box, you can try entering all zeros (000-00-0000) to bypass the system.
If that doesn't work and you really want the job, try calling the company direct. Ask to speak to the HR department and tell them you're uncomfortable providing your SSN due to concerns about identity theft. Ask if it's acceptable to print the form, scan it and email it in to them with the SSN unfilled.
Remember if you do this, that there are no laws in place to prevent a company rejecting your application due to your refusal to supply a SSN. You need to weigh up the possible risk of rejection against the very real risk that your data could fall into the wrong hands.
Many recruiters will tell horror stories about EXCEL sheets full of names, addresses and SSNs being sent unencripted by email by poorly trained HR staff or stored on an employee's desktop, on a networked machine that could be accessed remotely by any employee in the company. If that image doesn't horrify you, it should.
Remember, all it takes for someone to open a bank account in your name is your SSN, name, address, and DOB - all information that is often requested on a job application form. A clever hacker could also call up your bank pretending to have forgotten 'your' login information and request a password reset that may give them access to your online bank account.
Reader Peter Kraatz decided to draw the line and reclaim his rights to be treated as a professional, when one company went too far requesting too much personal information. Says Kraatz:
"One HR department required I send W-2s, financial history, and signed release forms for all sorts of irrelevant information. This, after simply submitting my resume and requesting more information about the position! No telephone interview, no in-person interview, and certainly no contingent offer -- just a demand that I lay bare all of my records without any assurances as to their safety and security. By politely requesting a signed confidentiality agreement before I will release what financial information I wish to share, I weed out the “lookers” from the serious bidders. If they are truly vetting me as a candidate, they will agree without question."
At the end of the day, it's not worth sacrificing your values, personal integrity, and risking exposing your personal data for the sake of one job application. There will always be another company you can apply to, but once your personal information is out there, you can't get it back. You have no say over what happens to it or where it may eventually end up.
In short, be safe, trust your gut, and keep your wits about you. You know what's best for you, and no job is worth the risk of identity theft.
Disclaimer: this article is for information purposes only and applies only to US labor laws. Always consult with an experienced attorney for a personal appraisal of your individual situation. For further reading, visit the Social Security Administration's official website at: http://www.ssa.gov/
Tune in next Tuesday for more great resume and job application tips! Same time, same place!