Background Check – A Case Study on Multiple Interpretations


Recently I’ve been doing some temporary work for a property management company.  I’m filling in for a property manager while he is gone on vacation.  As you might imagine, the phone rings regularly in our office with questions about available housing.  Most calls go fairly predictably.  Potential clients begin asking about properties and sharing about their needs.  At some point in the conversation I respond with questions about pets, smoking, monthly income and readiness to cover initial costs.  The calls are generally cookie cutter, resulting in a plan to either move forward or keep looking.

But last week I got a call that added a little spice to the formula.

As the phone rang I picked up to start a conversation much like any other.  “I’d like to know about your property on Blue Street” they said.  “Sure.  It’s a two bedroom, one bath with a detached garage” I answered.  “Is that something in the category of what you are looking for?”

Our conversation continued with the typical questions about which of our properties might best fit their needs.  As we moved through the conversation it seemed like this client had an above average interest in moving forward.  I asked my general set of questions and received generally optimistic answers.  This led to the all-important step of moving toward the application.

“If you are interested”, I said, “the next step would be to fill out an application.  You can find it on our website.  I’d encourage you to be sure and fill it out entirely and provide all the supplemental documentation that it asks for.”

“Like what?” the client asked.

“The application will ask for places of past employment.  It will ask for copies of your current pay stubs, from your current place of employment, to verify your income.  It will also ask for references from past rental properties that you have lived in.  Things like that.”

There was silence on the other end of the phone.  After a moment the client spoke.  “Are you going to do a background check?”

“Yes,” I responded.  We do background and credit checks on all of our applicants.”

More quiet.

Speaking slowly the client responded, “You may find some things that don’t look too good when you do a background check on me” they said.  The conversation quickly turned to what I interpreted as an attempt to prepare me for what I would discover if I indeed did a background check.  It felt like they wanted me to have their explanation of their past first – knowing that I would very likely read and hear things that might not shine glowingly on their past.

I assured them that background checks were standard operating procedure for all applicants and that the discoveries found via those checks had weight in clients being approved for properties – or not.

“Okay”, they said in a discouraged tone.  The conversation quickly ended.

I have yet to receive their application.

Final thoughts:  Rather than pronounce a final judgement via this story I’d like to invite you to process with me a bit…

What is your first response to this story?  What principle or insight, in your opinion, is this story trying to support?

How does your response give insight into your own value system?  Which of your values is supported by your interpretation?

Could there be other interpretations supported by this story?  For instance, if one interpretation is that irresponsibility leads to consequences.  What about the interpretation that all of us have things in our past that we would rather others didn’t know about us?  Or the interpretation that the system is rigged against people who need second chances?

NOTE:  I’m not asking you to believe these other interpretations.  I’m just asking you to consider the possibility that they might exist…and that these interpretations might be deeply believed by real people.

And if they are…

What now?

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