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Should You Ask Candidates For Social Security Numbers On Job Applications?

Job application form with a pen next to the Social Security number field.

Is it legal for employers to ask for Social Security numbers on job applications? Should your company do so? What are the pros and cons of asking for SSNs, and what are your responsibilities for protecting this sensitive data?

Get answers to the most common questions about SSNs and job applications and what to consider during the hiring process.

Hiring managers should always be equipped with the dos and don’ts of asking questions during the screening and hiring process. After all, you want to ensure you’re compliant with all federal, state, and local regulations while also following fair hiring best practices for your company. 

But there are still a few lingering questions that are often asked amongst both hiring managers and candidates, and many relate to Social Security numbers (SSNs). Questions like:

  • Is it legal to ask for a Social Security number on a job application?
  • Why do job applications ask for Social Security numbers?
  • Should your company ask for Social Security numbers?

These questions are asked for good reason; with the number of data breaches consistently on the rise, candidates want to ensure their most sensitive personal information is secure. 

In just the first six months of 2019, 4.1 billion records were exposed through data breaches—and the information that’s compromised goes beyond user names and passwords. In 2019, First American Financial Corp. experienced a breach, exposing 885 million records that included bank transactions and Social Security numbers.

Beyond data exposure and the impact it has on consumers, these breaches are costly for employers. The global average cost of just one data breach is nearly $4 million. In total, cybercrime in 2019 cost businesses more than $2 trillion.

So, what should employers do when it comes to asking for Social Security numbers from candidates? GoodHire is digging into the most commonly asked questions about SSNs and job applications and what to consider during the hiring process.

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It is legal for employers to ask for SSNs on job applications. However, candidates are not obligated to provide it if they feel uncomfortable. In this instance, candidates who are uncertain about providing their SSN may ask why it’s needed, how it will be used, and what measures are being taken internally to protect their sensitive information. As the employer, you should be prepared to address these concerns.

Candidates may also want to do their due diligence in researching employers to ensure they’re legitimate. And, due to an increase in remote onboarding, both candidates and employers should take extra precautions when disclosing and handling sensitive information. One way to do this? Send applications and sensitive documents through a secure online platform vs email.

Why Do Employers Ask For Social Security Numbers?

This answer, of course, depends on the employer. More often than not, employers will ask for a candidate’s SSN to save time down the road when it’s time to complete onboarding documentation, and most importantly, to conduct a thorough background check. 

Another common reason employers ask for Social Security numbers is to simply confirm the candidate’s identity and work authorization before moving any further through the hiring and screening process. Currently, employers in all states are allowed to ask for applicants’ SSNs, but whether they choose to ask is up to each individual company.

Once consent is provided by the candidate, a Social Security number and date of birth is required to run the background check and match the candidate to their personal information. Further, it’s used for an SSN Trace, which is part of a more comprehensive background check process that includes state and/or county criminal background checks. An SSN Trace can:

  • Assess whether the SSN is valid
  • Confirm that the SSN matches the candidate-provided name and date of birth
  • Provide associated addresses to inform which states and counties should be searched in a more comprehensive criminal background check report
  • Reveal additional candidate names (like maiden names) that can also be used in more in-depth background screenings

It’s important to note, however, that an SSN Trace cannot confirm whether the SSN actually belongs to a candidate. For an added level of security, running an Identity Verification check as part of a background check can help you assess whether the SSN belongs to the candidate.

Why? There is a risk that a candidate may be the victim of mistaken identity or identity theft. In this case, a candidate may be denied a job offer (or have one rescinded) because of information on their background check that belongs to someone else with the same name (and sometimes the same date of birth).

Should Your Company Ask For Social Security Numbers?

Again, the answer depends on your company’s hiring policy, and may come down to a simple pros and cons assessment. For example, some benefits to asking for an SSN may include:

  • The ability to check right away that a candidate’s application information matches their identity
  • The ability to run more thorough background checks and screenings
  • Improved efficiency during the application and hiring process
  • Time saved down the line when you may require more information from a qualified candidate

On the other hand, there may be some down sides to asking candidates for their SSN on job applications, including:

  • Increased responsibility to protect their sensitive information
  • Changing internal processes to collect and store applications
  • Making candidates feel uncomfortable about providing personal and sensitive information that could be compromised 

Through the lens of a CRA like GoodHire, it’s in the best interest for companies to ask for SSNs to perform an Identity Verification. This acts as an added layer of security and protection from:

  • Hiring a dishonest candidate who isn’t who they say they are
  • Denying a job offer to a candidate whose SSN doesn’t match or because of a failed background screening (due to identity theft or mistaken identity)
  • Mitigate risk to your business (by hiring qualified, trustworthy employees)

However, depending on your hiring process, you may determine that an SSN isn’t needed on the job application itself, but further down the line in the screening and hiring process. 

Pro tip: If you do decide to ask for SSNs upfront, consider working with your company’s legal team to draft a statement of transparency that clearly explains why you ask for it, how you use it, and how you protect it.

How Are Social Security Numbers Protected?

Simply put, employers need systems and processes in place to protect all sensitive data collected from candidates—not just Social Security numbers. It’s ultimately your company’s responsibility to help ensure candidate information is secure and stays that way long-term. That also includes hiring a trusted, reputable CRA and understanding the measures it has in place to do the same.

GoodHire understands the skepticism of asking for and providing SSNs on job applications. That’s why we take extra steps to protect SSNs and other sensitive data, so you and your candidates can feel confident that it’s secure. 

In addition to robust application and infrastructure security protocols, GoodHire works to protect SSNs by:

  • Ensuring only GoodHire employees who can see candidates’ SSNs are those who need it to fulfill background check orders or to resolve customer service issues
  • Keeping a digital record of every time a GoodHire employee accesses someone’s SSN information, so we know who has looked at candidates’ SSNs
  • Encrypting all candidate SSNs to protect them from unauthorized use or exposure

Protect Your Company & Candidates’ Sensitive Information With GoodHire

Deciding whether to ask candidates to provide their SSN on job applications is an important decision for companies. You want to ensure a streamlined, efficient hiring process while also ensuring candidates’ sensitive information stays protected. 

With GoodHire’s platform, you can feel confident asking for a candidate’s SSN while also assuaging any doubts or concerns they have about handing it over. And when you use Identity Verification checks as part of a comprehensive background check, you get an added layer of security that you’re making hiring decisions based on the most accurate screening results for candidates.

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The resources provided here are for educational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. We advise you to consult your own counsel if you have legal questions related to your specific practices and compliance with applicable laws.

About the Author

Ashley Blonquist is a former news journalist. She writes about GoodHire’s employment screening services and how employers use them to make informed hiring decisions.