Dear Penny: Will Bad Credit Kill My Chances of Landing My Dream Job?

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Dear Penny,

I’m a recently divorced 47-year-old woman. I had great credit for most of my adult life.

But due to some issues surrounding the divorce (difficulty surviving on one income and issues involving joint accounts), my credit score took a big hit and is now 559.

I’m back on my feet now, and I’m in the final stages of interviewing for my dream job. I’m told that if I get an offer, it will be contingent on a credit check, even though it doesn’t require handling money or dealing with finances.

I’m terrified that my credit score will stop me from landing this job. Do you have any advice about what to do if and when they check my credit?

C.

Dear C.,

If you worked in public relations and your client had bad news — say, they were the company du jour that just experienced a major data breach — you’d want to get in front of the story before it breaks.

When you’re a job candidate, you’re basically your own PR representative. So if you know your prospective employer is going to uncover unflattering information about you, you want to get in front of your own story. You want to break the bad news first.

But first you need to know what they’re about to see, so let’s start by clearing up a pervasive myth: Employers don’t see your credit score when they do a credit check on a candidate. 

What they see is a modified version of your credit report. It will include your outstanding debts (but not the account numbers), how much credit you have available and your payment history on each account. So while they will see any missed or late payments and high balances that caused your credit score to drop, you won’t have to explain why it’s 559.

To see the information they’ll have available, get a free copy of your credit reports at AnnualCreditReport.com and make sure all of the information is accurate.

If the company you’ve applied for does pull your credit — and they’ll be required by law to get your consent in writing before doing so — that’s the time to have a frank discussion with the hiring manager.

Try something to the effect of: “I’m thrilled to move forward to the next step of your process. Before you check my credit, I wanted to make you aware of the circumstances behind some recent negative information you’ll find and what steps I’m taking to correct it.”

If you’ve been able to reduce your monthly expenses or consolidate or pay off any debt recently, make sure to tell them that to show that you have a plan to rebuild your credit.

Yes, it’s going to be scary to have this talk with a person who wields a lot of power in this situation. 

But remember why employers conduct credit checks. It’s not to make sure that they never hire a person who’s made a mistake with their money. It’s primarily to protect the company and its customers from theft and fraud, though sometimes employers look to credit reports to get a sense of whether a candidate is responsible and organized.

So if you had a long history of running up credit cards, not making payments and having accounts sent to collections, you might be seen as a risky hire. But if you always made on-time payments until recently and can explain mitigating factors that caused you to fall behind on bills or take on more debt, they’re much more likely to be understanding.

Since you’re not a candidate for a role that requires you to directly handle money, the company is a lot more likely to be lenient. However, if the company does reject you specifically because of negative information in your file, it will be required to send you notice, provide you a copy of your credit report and a summary of your rights, and give you time to dispute inaccurate information.

Remember: There are a lot of people with great careers who struggle financially at some point. Even hiring managers aren’t exempt from money troubles.

By being up-front about your circumstances, you’re more likely to get the understanding and respect of a potential employer. Just remember that if your recent hardships prevent you from landing this position, there are other dream jobs out there — with companies that see you as more than a few blips on your credit report.

Robin Hartill is a senior editor at The Penny Hoarder and the voice behind Dear Penny. Send your questions about credit scores and debt to [email protected]