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Kenyon: Getting Jobbed, Dartmouth Style

So, you want a job at Dartmouth? Get ready to empty your closet, skeletons and all. Unless, of course, you’re looking to join the faculty.

This summer, Dartmouth rolled out what was billed as a new “background check policy” and consent form, which was mailed to me anonymously. The policy required candidates for “all staff positions” (excluding faculty, naturally) to sign a three-page document that allowed the college to delve into their lives in ways that would have made J. Edgar Hoover proud.

Did you once live in a nudist colony? Ever been late on a credit card payment? What about that drug test you failed as a teenager while flipping burgers for a fast-food restaurant chain? Dartmouth wanted to know.

The new policy even gave the college the power to conduct “personal interviews with sources such as neighbors, friends and associates.”

Neighbors? Since when did how often a guy mows his lawn become Dartmouth’s business? (You can tell I’m sensitive about my own mowing habits.)

I’m guessing Dartmouth administrators didn’t want their fingerprints on what might be viewed — in civil liberties circles, at least — as unsavory snooping. So a California employment screener named HireRight was enlisted to “prepare or assemble the background reports for the Company.” (By referring to itself as the “Company,” Dartmouth has thankfully stopped pretending it is run like a nonprofit institution rather than a multi-billion dollar corporation.)

I understand Dartmouth’s desire to screen prospective workers. Despite what their resumes may say, not everyone graduated from Harvard or spent five years in the Peace Corps before moving on to Wall Street. (Although on a college campus, the ability to stretch the truth a bit could come in handy. Particularly, if you’re in the fundraising department.)

Searching public records to determine whether a job candidate has a history of serious crime is always a good idea. A position in campus security may not be the best place for a serial burglar.

But there is such a thing as digging too deep. The background check policy, which went into effect on Aug. 1, resembled something the Pentagon might require. According to the policy’s consent form, the college reserved the right to gather information concerning, among other things, your “general reputation, personal characteristics” and “mode of living.”

I wasn’t sure what mode the college was talking about, but I figured Myron McCoo would know. McCoo, a former attorney, became Dartmouth’s vice president of human resources in August 2011.

On Monday, I stopped by his office. McCoo told me that he couldn’t talk about the new background check policy.

And why was that?

It’s against Dartmouth policy for him to discuss policy, McCoo said.

He referred me to Justin Anderson, the college’s assistant vice president for media relations. Anderson said he’d get back to me.

I decided to visit Earl Sweet’s basement office in Dartmouth Hall. For 28 years, Sweet has been the president of the labor union that represents 500 or so rank-and-file Dartmouth employees.

When it comes to dealing with reporters, Sweet also has a policy. It’s called an open door.

I showed him a copy of the background check consent form. “I haven’t seen this,” he said.

Sweet was particularly interested in the part of the consent form that gave the college the right to conduct background checks “throughout your employment.” Before someone is hired, the union has no say in what the college does. But it’s another matter once a union-eligible employee joins the payroll. “We certainly haven’t agreed to background checks on our members,” Sweet said. “It sounds like they’re doing more than they say they’re doing.”

Yesterday morning, I heard back from Anderson, the college’s spokesman.

He set me straight — sort of.

That new background check policy that went into effect on Aug. 1? The policy that required job candidates to consent to sharing results of distant-past drug and alcohol tests? The policy that gave the college the right to interview your neighbors?

"It’s already been revised,” Anderson said. “Like what happens with many new programs, sometimes we make modifications and adjustments as we go. We had feedback from folks who were not totally comfortable with the some of the language.”

This month, (Anderson didn’t provide an exact date) Dartmouth shelved its background check consent form for a “shorter version that is more clear and straightforward.”

The original consent form was based on hiring guidelines established by the federal government, Anderson said. “It doesn’t reflect what we would ask HireRight to do,” he said. “We’re not calling neighbors. That’s not something we would ever do.”

What a relief.

Although I’m not sure it’s all that comforting to current employees. The college still reserves the right to conduct background checks on employees who are up for promotions or looking to change departments but haven’t undergone a previous screening. “I’m afraid they’re going to pick and choose who they are going to do it to,” Sweet said.

The faculty need not worry, though. Individual academic departments still control their own vetting processes, Anderson said.

How can Dartmouth get away with different rules for different folks?

I guess it depends on what floor of the ivory tower you work on.