Freelance Writer Hiring Trends: Credit Checks and Drug Tests??

By Michael Stelzner

I have to share story with you. It’s one of the most bizarre things that’s ever happened in my freelance writing career—and it happened to me just recently.

Now before I share this story with you, I want you to know that I thought I had pretty much seen it all… I work with some of the largest companies in the world (and some of the smallest) and have seen the many hoops they make us freelancers jump through. But I’ve never experienced about to share with you

Recently I was in discussions with a rather well-known brand-name. They came to me, and were interested in a white paper project. The discussion went very well and we decided to move to the purchase order stage. After a day or so, I received an e-mail from my primary contact, telling me a bunch of forms would be coming via e-mail.

Obtrusive Requests??

I was kind of surprised by one of the documents they sent me, entitled “Background Check Packet.” I thought, “Background check? What do they need to do a background check for?”

So I closely examine the document. It asked me to authorize them to:

  • Investigate my consumer credit
  • Check into my education
  • Examine my  prior employment

The document also asked for my Social Security number, driver’s license number, date of birth, and places I’ve lived over the last few years.

The cover letter explained that they were going to pull my credit history, criminal history, DMV records, and anything else they will need.

Of course, I objected to having them run my credit report as I was refinancing my house and didn’t see any reason for them to run a credit report on me. I figured it must just be some HR department mistake, but wait, there was more…

Urine Sample??

Things got really interesting after my objection to the credit report. My contact at the company came back and said, “No need to run the credit report, however we will need to run a drug test on you, watch for a packet in the mail.”

What?? They’re hiring me to write a white paper, and they need to run a drug test!

This really doesn’t make any sense. The only foreign objects in my system will be caffeine. I’m not going to argue this one, but instead decided to document my experience here for your edification.

IMPLICATIONS: Is this the future for freelance writers, where corporations run criminal background checks, credit reports and drug tests prior to hiring a contractor to write something—that exclusively involves telephone calls and delivering Microsoft Word documents?

What are your thoughts? Have you experienced this before?

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  • shauna

    The company I work for full-time didn’t require those things of me (god bless small creative agencies). No way would I acquiesce to them for a freelance gig. If my resume and an NDA weren’t enough, they’d just have to find someone else. It’s not a matter of having anything to hide (caffeine is my strongest “drug,” and my credit is fine) — it’s a matter of personal privacy.

  • Michael Stelzner

    Thanks Shauna! I thought maybe I was over reacting??

  • Jonathan Kantor


    I NEVER had this experience with any of my clients, some of which are very large enterprise organizations. There are two things that come to mind as I read your post:

    1. The organization has mistakenly assumed you are a new employee and executed the same process that they use for that procedure. Maybe this is an simple example of being caught in the red tape of a large bureaucracy?

    2. If not #1, then this sounds like a SCAM! There is no reason why they would need your SS# and/or credit history. Have you verified that your contact person actually works at the organization and has the title they claim? Try calling the main# at the switchboard and see if this person works there and they are the person/title they claim to be.

    Hopefully it’s #1 and not #2.

    Good Luck!


  • Nick Usborne

    During 30 years as a freelancer I have never come across anything like that. I’ll sign an NDA, after I have read it carefully. But that’s it. To those guys I would say no just as a matter of principle. Privately I would tell my contact that his company is nuts and wish him or her luck in finding a decent freelancer who will agree to their terms. They’ll find themselves in the bad position of having to select freelancers not on the basis of the quality of their work, but on their willingness to take urine tests and submit to credit checks. If the fee were massive and I was close to broke, I might put aside my principles…and send them a sample of my dog’s urine. : )

  • Jim

    Yes, I’ve experienced this exact same thing, TWICE, as early as 2007. Both times I worked for a large oil firm. The first time I was hired to convert a 5-minute video script into something translatable to multiple language (i.e., dummy it down). The second I was writing an introduction PowerPoint presentation for an IT program and testing questions.

    Both times I had to submit to a background check, drug test, and confidentiality agreement. (At least they paid me for the time it took me to fill out the numerous forms and the test, as well as paying me for the cab ride to/from the drug test.) It wasn’t even the client who was paying me, it was a separate employment agency (basically I was a high paid temp). It took weeks and weeks to get everything straightened around, and months for them to give me access to the material. By the time I got access, the job was over. By that time I had a security pass to their buildings (not that I’d ever use it since they’re on the other side of the US).

    The first time I raised a stink about it. I didn’t understand why all the red tape for a freelancer, and one in a totally different state at that. I trusted the woman I was working for since I knew her from a previous full time job. But still, it was annoying. If I hadn’t known my contact and if I been desperate for the money (and it WAS good money), I’m not sure I would have agreed to everything. I hope this doesn’t become the norm but I won’t be surprised if it does.

  • Michael Stelzner

    Hey Jonathan;

    This is a legit 1000 employee international business and there was no mistake that I was indeed NOT an employee applicant.

    In fact, my contact even tried to side with me, but no luck.

    Crazy eh!


  • Michael Stelzner

    Nick – Great idea about the dog! Too bad I do not have one. – Mike

  • Jonathan Kantor

    Very Crazy!

    Are you sure you want to do business with this firm? My experience with firms that have very demanding rules up front is that it will not end during the white paper development process. Expect them to be very picky and have their own WP format, procedures, process. and timelines.

    Either way, it doesn’t sound good, but best of luck to you. I hope I’m wrong and it turns out very differently in the end.


  • Michael Stelzner

    Jonathan – It’s the HR department putting up these crazy demands, not my primary contact, so I’ll go along for the ride.

    If it wasn’t a known brand I might pass.


  • Glory Gray


    Definitely a case of the company’s attorneys overreacting to a problem in the company’s HR past…and responding with blanket policy changes to employees as well as contractors.

    Unfortunately, the wheels turn too slowly for anything to be changed during the time of your project, and I’d be surprised if anyone hiring you wants to cause a stir.

    If you really wanted to make a difference for others facing this in the future, California Labor Board might be a place to start for information. I once fought a company on a matter of principle there, though it was long ago.

    Always upsetting when things like this happen that make no sense. Sorry you had to go through it.


    Glory Gray

  • Howard M. Cohen

    In the right mood you might consider returning their return envelop soaked in your sample. I think that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard since GWB stole the election in 2000. Work for sane companies.

  • Marci Diehl


    In the 29 years I’ve worked as a freelance writer, I’ve only worked for small companies, so I’ve never run up against a large corporation — wait, I did go through an interview process with Xerox, but it consisted of various one-on-one meetings and a very nice lunch. I agree with Glory: it could be a result of an HR problem they had in the past, so they’re creating a blanket policy — as insane as it may be — and which is typical of behemoths with too many layers. (Suddenly I’m having flashbacks to the movie Office Space… Could you give me that urine sample asap? Yeah…that’d be great…)

    But as I read your description, I began to wonder if this is a trend that will develop with the use of social media — not being able to control what’s written; or the fear by companies that soc med will be a loss of control even of the freelancers they hire???

    God I hope not. What has a credit report got to do with skills in writing? Do they think — we can manufacture our own?? Thanks for sharing the bizarre tale and GOOD LUCK.

  • Ryan Malone

    Never heard of such a ridiculous thing. It sounds like the company is tied up by their internal processes that they can’t see straight. Never mind the fact that your book, web site and thousands and comments and testimonials should be proof enough.

    That being said, I once worked for a company who denied a sales rep’s application due to a recent speeding ticket. The HR representative claimed they could be a liability while renting a car. Classic!

    Personally, I’d have to wonder whether it is a sign of how the customer will be like during the project.

    You might as well throw in a DNA sample and be proactive :)

  • Casey Hibbard

    Hi Mike,

    Wow, I’ve never encountered this before either. A surprising number of large companies even skip the NDA it seems.

    I agree with Jonathan. Even if this is a high-profile name, this could be a sign of bureaucracy in the company that will cause more headaches down the road. I personally feel those steps violate privacy even if you have nothing to hide. Some level of checking is understandable but this is too much.

    Good luck whatever you decide!


  • Emma

    Wow – I’ve worked in law enforcement for 6 years now… and that sounds like our standard hiring process. Glad they didn’t ask you for a lie detector test! Perhaps they’re afraid you’ll go all “Lewis Carroll” on them and publish a very abstract white paper!

  • Jacquelyn Lynn

    I have to side with the position that this is a gross invasion of privacy. Does this company ask its attorneys, accountants, or other professional service providers to submit to an individual background check, credit check, and drug test?

    I would not allow any client to run a personal credit check on me. First and foremost, my financial situation is none of their business. What’s to stop them from using that information in their negotiations with me? Besides, when they contract with me, they are technically contracting with my company, an established LLC registered with the state, not me as an individual. They are welcome to check out my company.

    As far as the drug test and criminal background check go, if I had to spend any time on their property or directly interacting with their customers, I might consider that. But otherwise, no.

    Our privacy rights are being seriously eroded, and once lost, they can never be regained. The “if you have nothing to hide” argument doesn’t hold water. It’s not a case of “hiding;” it’s a case of “none of their business.”

    Writing samples? Of course. References? Sure. Drug test? Maybe. Credit check? Absolutely not.

  • John Soares

    This makes no sense to me. They should care about the quality of your work, not your credit score or whether or not you smoke marijuana.

    The only way I think they could have some justification would be if they planned to make you a public spokesperson for the company. If so, then negative aspects of your personal life could impact their business.

  • Erik

    This seems preposterous to me. If they are worried about the quality of your work, well, they can easily withhold payment if you work is substandard. Requiring a credit check would only seem necessary to me if they want payments from you and need to judge your financial reliability. I assume they will be paying you, not having you pay them. The drug test? Well, that is just plain invasive. Why would they care if you produce quality work? If you didn’t they can refuse to pay you. This seems like corporate nonsense in the extreme.

  • Apryl Parcher

    When I first read this post, I was taken aback–and my visceral reaction was “No way–a urine test?!”

    Jonathan’s concerns about the validity of the credit check thing started me thinking… there really isn’t a good reason to have credit information on a writer that’s not working in-house, and I agree with Jacqueline’s concerns that it opens up way too many possibilities on use of that information.

    What reasons (other than legal paranoia) could a company have for requiring this? I’m wondering what’s behind the push.

  • Joyce Dierschke

    I wouldn’t have been comfortable giving out all that information to a client. These days companies “lose” employee/personal information or it is stolen a bit too often. I don’t see a valid reason for it, I don’t think I would have agreed to it. It is bordering heavily on invasion of privacy.

  • John Sky


    Please tell me you can suck it up and tell them to find someone else.

    Once we give up our freedoms…even a little urine…we have lost everything. The word “Free” in freelancer is what you should be looking at…if you don’t physically work for this company, these things are unnecessary.

    Indead, if they want all this before you start…your creative nature will come into play before this project is complete.

    Question: Do you really need this?

    If you set the example…we will all follow.

    Keep the faith.

  • Julia

    I’ve never had a credit check for a contract before, but I did have a drug test about 10 years ago. The client was a large oil field service company and some of their contractors operated heavy equipment on oil fields belonging to company clients. The rule was ALL contractors and employees had to pass the drug and alcohol test rather than sort out who might need to operate equipment and who wouldn’t. I didn’t especially like it, but I could see their pointand I wanted the work.

  • Nathan Hangen

    That’s crazy…I’d never put up with it and I would probably make a stink about it. You shouldn’t have to prove anything, the proof is in the pudding, not the urine.

  • Louis Columbus


    I’d ask your contact if this was a standard response from HR who assumed you were going to work on site. I’d also be assertive and question if this was truly necessary or not. If your contact felt it was, then I would decline the work.

    I’ve been freelance writing for a few years and never have had to do the extent of these tests. I was even hired by a very large and well-known ERP vendor to do a white paper and vendor qualification was a phone call back East for five minutes and we were done.

    May you get lucky, keep the project and bypass what appears to be a non-thinking HR department.

    Good luck and let us all know how it turns out,


  • JuneM


    What no hair & nail samples or home inspection?
    As a contractor could see them checking out your company credit (if it was a large dollar amount or to see if any legal issues with proprietary information involved or high security clearance type materials (govt contractors)

    But on the personal side, would not care how good the single contract was, would say no thank you. Unless

    They provided you the same information in kind.
    The last 3 years of their tax filing statements.
    All their executive board and directors SS, credit reports and backgrounds

    Oh and UA’s & psy evaluations of every person involved in the project.

  • Jacques Snyman | 3 Quotes

    Hahahahahahah! Treating a business entity delivering a corporate service the same as a pimply faced teenager in the mailroom is just ridiculous. Urine samples dealt with in this manner are also not secure, so who knows what can happen with your sample in transit?

  • Hydraulic Union

    Wow, that is really an unnecessarily rigorous process. It really seems like they were applying the process for new employees rather than for freelancers/contractors. The SSN I can understand since they have to file tax forms for everyone they pay, But all that other stuff seems overkill. If they don’t have a procedure for non-on-site employees they should really create one.

  • Fedja Hvastija

    I hate to post one of those “in my country…” posts, but someone has to. I’m baffled at the concept of a credit check and urine sample in any corporate context. If my company demanded such checks for full-time employees, they’d find themselves dragged through more courts than I can name and nailed to the wall by every single media house.
    Really, where does it end? Even if one ignores the issue of personal information and health record confidentiality, when did the employers become the executive branch of the state?
    There is no difference between urine samples being a qualifier for a job and getting fired from your office job because you got a speeding ticket. I’d likely tell the employer where they can shove the urine test and go on a personal campaign of making their processes known to my peers. If the laws can’t prevent this nonsense, the laws of supply and demand sure can.

  • Winnie Anderson

    Hi Mike-
    Wow. What a story. I spent the fist 15+ years of my career in HR. You might want to share with those folks that if they treat freelancers as if they’re employees a freelancer could then make the case that they ARE an employee. This could lead to a lawsuit where the company could then be on the hook for all kinds of stuff (cash…benefits they should have given the “employee”, etc.). As a matter of fact, if they have other freelancers that have put up with that crap those people could form a class and do a class action law suit.


  • Goran Giertz

    It seems that this company might be a front for something more sinister. Why would they be so thorough in their vetting of suppliers? It doesn’t seem very constitutional to me at all.

  • Winnie Anderson

    One other thing I forgot to mention in my previous comment is that many companies are doing this for their contract / contingency staff but the difference is THOSE folks work onsite as opposed to us working long distance. Apparently companies have normally done NO background checks on their onsite contingency workers and have ended up with problems with some of them (theft…data breaches…sexual harassment…etc.) so companies are between a rock and a hard place. They really DO need to do some sort of verification (no they can’t rely on the companies they get them from to do this…sad but true) but they need to not just do it in cookie cutter fashion which is what I think happened with Mike. Still…as I mentioned in my earlier comments…they need to tread carefully here because of the potential for treating a contractor like an employee.

    (My focus as a copywriter is on HR vendors…)
    Winnie Anderson (I’m also certified as a Senior Professional in HR)

  • Cash Back

    Yes when some companies get too big they institute such stupid HR rules. It makes no sense to ask potential employees all of that. They are brainless if they think they are helping themselves by asking all that. I probably wouldn’t apply for any jobs with those kind of requirements. They probably scare away a lot of good employees that way. I guess with bigger companies it just takes one dumbass to make a mistake that every future employee suffers from.

  • Jonathan Kranz

    The most appropriate response to a request for a urine sample: “Open wide…”

  • Mikey

    If a company wants that kind of information from me for an assignement, why would I subject myself to their scrutiny. I always require information from my clients before I LET THEM IN MY CIRCLE.
    Tell 'em to jump in the lake. They need you. You don't need their BS. You're way too good for that.

  • Heather Rubesch

    Companies with government contracts tend to be required to much more in terms of background checks than those who don't. In 2006 I did a 9 week on-site project regarding business process documentation for a health insurance company had had claims processing contracts with both Medicare and Tricare. Because of the nature of my digging through their business processes I was required to submit both to a drug screen (urine) and exhaustive background check. I was employed by a larger and well known consulting company at the time who had done the same checks on me when I started as and employee. Regulations like HIPPA and OFAC are no joke. Companies can lose their ability to do business with the federal government if they aren't diligent about doing knowing who they are turning their data over to. Now as freelancer I would actually expect more not less scrutiny if I was looking to do the same kind of work as an independent. As I said in 2006 I worked for a large company who had already validated and was willing to vouch for my credibility. The world changed several years ago when that Veterans Administration employee took home data on a laptop and then the laptop got stolen from him home. If you want to work in those types of engagements you have to be prepared to pee in a cup or pass on the money.

  • gordongraham

    Well, I wouldn't take any amount of money from a company that obnoxious. And I would seriously wonder who in HR is harvesting all that juicy information to use for ID theft.

    Not that I have anything to hide, but I agree with many of your posters that no amount of $$ is worth this kind of intrusion into our private lives as freelancers.

  • Obozy Studenckie

    Maybe someone just wanted to steal informations about you and other people? I mean to use them in some sort of advertisement campaign or something like that. There could be some possibilities of using some informations about you. But if it's just strange politics of that company I would not work with them. As long as I am strongly against any drugs (including cigarettes) I'm also against violating some basic rights (a right to privacy in this case).

  • Jerry Kolber

    Mike perhaps the problem is that in a down economy there's not much hiring going on at these corporations, so there aren't as many new employee's private lives for HR to invade. They were probably getting bored and decided “Hey I know, let's check the urine of our freelance writer's! That'll keep us busy until things pick up again!”

  • jay@ work at home

    A urine test? They make It sound like you are going to be dealing with them face front to front. It's not like you are applying for a 9-5. Freelance work is being taken more serious, but outrageous steps are being put forward. Very strange IMO.

  • patiencepie

    I once interviewed for a writing position with a well-known healthcare and social issues communications company in Massachusetts and they made me take that famous 3-hour personality profile (MMPP or something like that) and other quizzes. One quiz asked “What would you do if you were given $100,000?” and one of the answers was, “Give it to my church.”
    (I found out later that the company's founder was a religious zealot.)

    Then they asked me back for ANOTHER written psychology test. After that, they wanted to hire me but I ran away as fast as I could — I'm sure the urine sample was not far behind!

  • Allan MacKenzie

    I'm a Canadian HR professional with over 20+ years experience, and our employment laws are very different than in the USA. So, I can only speak as an outsider. For example, it's against our Human Rights Act to conduct pre-hiring urine testing unless the postion has a BFOR safety component – I don't believe 'writer' would qualify as a safety sensitive position that could cause undue harm to others or yourself – however those pencils can be sharp :-)

    Anyway, this namless company is using their hiring SOP's for a freelancer which is quite interesting approach. My question to you is – if you are invoicing them for your writing services you are not an 'employee' you are a 'vendor', so why are they subjecting you to this process. When the telephone repair company person shows up, do they hand this person a cup at reception before letting into the office to fix the phone?

    This is a very poor representation of HR practices and I'm sorry you had to experience this unprofessional process. Certainly doesn't lend any creditability to my profession :-(

  • Sheri

    “The rule was ALL contractors and employees had to pass the drug and alcohol test rather than sort out who might need to operate equipment and who wouldn't”

    This is the key: few large companies (who usually employ a team of attorneys or retain a high-end law firm to draft these things,) value any individual resource enough to bother customizing their standard agreements/ policies or to make an exception for them. After all, there's always 10 or 100 or 1,000 other people who will eagerly agree to do whatever they ask – and they know it.

    I've lost several potential clients due to their mandate that I sign a non-compete – because they work with coders/other tech people on extended contracts and it's standard practice.

    I tried to explain that freelance writers doing an ad hoc job can't work this way…we need to market ourselves so we can pay bills and eat long AFTER this one $500 or $1,000 project is over. But no luck – they replaced me post haste with several candidates all too willing to sign their rights away.

  • Jill C

    Just saw the link to this in Mike's email newsletter. While their circumstances might be as Heather described, having big federal contracts that impose ridiculous conditions, I think the invasion of privacy is just too overwhelming to put aside and a trend that must not be allowed to proliferate. Mike, as one of the premier WP writers on the planet, you no doubt have many other clients as prestigious and well-paying and will certainly get more in short order. I hope you said not no, HELL NO!

  • mikeketcher

    I've experienced something similar with a large bureaucratic organization. This organization hired various types of contractors, among them building contractors. Their legal dept. instituted a rule that all contractors would have to jump through various types of hoops, including showing that they had liability insurance. I don't know if drug testing was a part of it. The company sent us a list of demands, and many of the people quit. However, after some negotiation, they determined that a blanket policy, covering every type of contractor, was a bad idea — and they changed their list of demands to fit the type of contract work that was being done. I can see why a large company would want to do drug tests on building contractors. I'm not sure how a credit check would be justified, but if you can talk to someone about the reasoning behind it, you might be able to get out of it. Even drug testing can turn up false positives, so everyone should be concerned about intrusive tests like that. Also, who knows where the result might end up? An officious peon in the corporate structure might just report you to the FBI.

  • Louise Mraz

    Hi Mike, Sometimes I feel the/your clients feel they need to get so personal so they can feel they are in control. Also, maybe they feel when they hire you and love your work, which they will, others will ask them, “where did you find him?' Is he safe, can I ask hin to work for me? I feel in this day and time there are a lot of people feel they need to be safe then sorry. Look at all of the people who believed in Maddoff. Yes I know we are just providing them with copywriting, not finances, but maybe people its one of the same. This was a very good interview with Denise Wakeman. Thank you for that.
    Louise Mraz

  • e-book,forum

    I once interviewed for a writing position with a well-known healthcare and social issues communications company in Massachusetts and they made me take that famous 3-hour personality profile (MMPP or something like that) and other quizzes. One quiz asked “What would you do if you were given $100,000?” and one of the answers was, “Give it to my church.”
    (I found out later that the company's founder was a religious zealot.)

    Then they asked me back for ANOTHER written psychology test. After that, they wanted to hire me but I ran away as fast as I could — I'm sure the urine sample was not far behind!

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