Workers With Bad Credit Aren’t Less Ethical

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Illustration by Alexander Ho for TIME

Nearly half of all companies check the credit reports of at least some prospective employees during the hiring process, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. This is a daunting statistic for many job-seekers, especially those who have been out of work for a long time and may have fallen behind on their bills in the interim. But a new study disputes the idea that people with low credit scores are more likely to steal, cheat, falsify or otherwise engage in what researchers call harmful workplace behaviors. “The idea is that if you have a bad credit score, you’ll engage in deviant acts. We found no relationship there,” says Jeremy Bernerth, lead researcher and professor at Louisiana State University. Bernerth and his team had study participants fill out a questionnaire designed to measure various personality traits, had their immediate workplace supervisors fill out surveys about those participants’ on-the-job performance, then pulled participants’ credit scores.

Those who feel credit scores have no place in the hiring process will, however, be disheartened by some of the other findings. Bernerth says researchers found correlations between credit scores and what he terms “task performance” and “citizenship behavior.” The first addresses how well people do in their day-to-day job functions, such as whether or not they complete assignments properly and on time. The second is characterized in the research report as discretionary actions that benefit either the company or the individual.

(MORE: Can a Credit Blemish Keep You From Landing a Job?)

High performance in both task and citizenship categories have a positive impact on businesses, the report says. And Bernerth’s team found that people with higher credit scores were better both at task performance as well as citizenship behavior. “It’s really about consistency,” he says. “We’re all driven towards consistency. If we’re being relaible and dependable in terms of our financial behavior, there’s a consistency in us that drives us towards those sorts of behaviors on the job.”

But credit data doesn’t tell the whole story — and Bernerth says too many employers today seem to treat job applicant credit scores as de facto personality assessments, which is a mistake. “If you look at what actually goes into a credit score, only 35 percent of it is your repayment history,” he says. Paying bills on time does demonstrate that a person is financially conscientious, but a long stretch of unemployment or other hardship like a medical crisis can skew that.

(MORE: Nice Guys’ Credit Scores Finish Last)

In addition, the other 65 percent of a credit score is comprised of attributes like length of credit history and type of debt, which Bernerth says isn’t predictive of a job-seeker’s performance. “[Employers] are talking about it as if a credit report or a credit score is a proxy of personality,” he says. “There’s some truth to that but there’s a lot more involved. There’s so much more in there I don’t know that that’s an accurate comparison.”