We had a question that has been closed and reopened where the question basically said: I did something illegal, am I likely to be caught when a potential employer does a background check: Does a background check include if you paid your taxes or not?

My thought is these questions are not appropriate unless the illegal act has already been addressed. In this case paying the taxes, but potentially dealing with the court system or other manners to clear out any potential for us to become facilitators of the crime.

  • What do you think of this question? workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/12617/…
    – Jim G.
    Jun 25, 2013 at 11:48
  • @JimG - My opinion is that question would apply to the rule here. There is no reason to close it there is nothing wrong with asking how a drug screen works or how to avoid being detected... it could be a white hat attack. I know that is compelete BS but that doesnt matter. I voted to reopen Jun 25, 2013 at 14:01
  • 1
    @Jim I think that is off-topic because it is asking about how to clear your system of drugs before a drug test, which is not something HR managers or other workplace professionals should be expected to know. In addition, the timing and phrasing of the question looks suspiciously like it was asked just to test this meta post, so I am not convinced it is a real question at all. I would not vote to close or reopen based on that assumption though, as the users intent shouldn't determine if a question is appropriate or not for the site (although in some cases, the intent may need to be edited out)
    – Rachel
    Jun 25, 2013 at 14:25

3 Answers 3


I fully agree with RhysW's answer that if the question is about how to continue an illegal activity, it is not acceptable, however if its about the consequences of illegal activity and how it affects your professional appearance, work life, or job hunt, then that is OK.

The whole question makes me think of the many discussions I've seen on Security.SE about "black hat" hacking vs "white hat" hacking. The most recent summary of their discussions can be found here: Clarify our stance on black hat questions.

The conclusion seems to be that don't judge a question by its potential use for abuse. The point of the SE sites is to share knowledge, and outlawing anything that might be illegal or used for illegal purposes prevents that. In addition, much of the material that could be used for illegal purposes can also be used for good (ie. for getting a job and eventually paying back the taxes that were missed).

SE sites are here to share accurate and "expert" knowledge. Its not their responsibility to police how their users use the knowledge they gain from the sites.

  • This is a good point, we are not meant to enforce the law. I think the main worry though was the potential to perhaps inadvertantly aid in a crime. If it happens too frequently it will reflect very poorly on our site
    – user5305
    Jun 24, 2013 at 15:39
  • Honestly I am ok with the question as the Title. My concern is actually the Context. Here this is I am a black hatter please let me know if I am going to get caught when I do X. Jun 24, 2013 at 15:43
  • @RhysW I see the chance of that happening being far greater on a site like Security.SE, so I'd say we should just keep an eye on their "black hat" discussions and public image, and take our cue from them. After all, why re-invent something that has a very low chance at being needed at this time, and is already being worked out elsewhere where its much more relevant ;)
    – Rachel
    Jun 24, 2013 at 15:44
  • @Chad I noticed the Security.SE discussions back when I was looking into how computer processes that were "unkillable" worked. That sort of information could be used by malicious software developers, but it is also used by anti-virus developers and network admins so they understand how to "kill" malicious tasks. It's valuable information that is quite relevant to their scope, so the ultimate decision was that they can't judge if a question is appropriate or not by it's potential uses only.
    – Rachel
    Jun 24, 2013 at 15:48
  • @Rachel - And I fully agree with that position. Here we have this I have an ongoing hack... am I going to get caught when I try to do something else. Jun 24, 2013 at 15:52
  • "The conclusion seems to be that don't judge a question by its potential use for abuse" ... "SE sites are here to share accurate and "expert" knowledge. Its not their responsibility to police how their users use the knowledge they gain from the sites." Exactly right! Jun 24, 2013 at 16:26

I think there is a divide between two separate types of questions.

On the one hand we have questions where people have done something illegal and are coming to us to find a potential loop hole to aid them in either continuing to do illegal activities or to aid them in covering up these illegal activities.

These types of questions should obviously not be acceptable here in the workplace. We don't condone illegal activity and will play no part in aiding a potential crime.

On the other hand we have some questions that aren't asking for aid in their illegal activities but are asking about the consequences of their actions and how it reflects on their professional appearance.

These types of questions are not asking for us to help them commit crime or for help covering up a crime. They are asking about the fallout of their previous activities.

Depending on how this is asked I Do think these types of questions can take residence here on the workplace.

In the event of the above example I think that the OP is not asking for our help in either committing or hiding a crime but they are instead asking how their previous actions will affect their appearance in the workplace and how it will affect their career.

That's why I think it was reopened. What we should do with it now is another matter.

But this divide between the two types of question isn't clear cut, it's going to be blurry and it's going to require input from the community, but in my point of view

If the question or answers that it will get are likely to aid anyone commit or cover up a crime then they are not fit for the site.

  • Actually the question is are they going to be caught... Can employers see whether or not I paid taxes certain years in a background check? This is not how will it affect how I am looked at. I think that is my major problem with the question Jun 24, 2013 at 14:14
  • I agree. I think "what are the workplace consequences of not paying taxes" is as valid here as "what are the workplace consequences of getting into a public fight with a former boss" or ...posting about the company on my blog" or any other lapses in judgement. Jun 24, 2013 at 15:53

To add on to the answers by Rachel and RhysW which I agree with.

Don't Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater

Rather than focusing on the intent of the person asking the question, I think the emphasis should be on evaluating the potential for the question to help well-meaning people in the future.

Specifically in regards to this question, regardless of the asker's intent, I think that there are many circumstances in which the answer to this question could help people in the future. For instance:

John has an accountant do his taxes. He is currently undergoing a background check for new employment and just received a letter from the IRS stating he will be audited. Will that show up on a background check?


Jane has been living in France working for a French multi-national for the past three years. Due to the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion she was told she didn't have to pay taxes in the US and did not file a return. After returning to the US she hired an accountant to handle taxation when she worked in both countries during the year. She is currently undergoing a background check when her accountant lets her know she still had to file a return even if her tax liability was zero for the year. Will this show up on a background check?

Both of these situations are well-meaning people who end up with the same result (a period where they were not filing taxes properly not due to ill-intent). Suggesting that we should remove a potential resource from John and Jane because we assume that Alexander wants to get around paying his doesn't seem like the best approach to make if we truly want to be a resource in the future.

Legality and Ethics are not Absolute

Would this question be appropriate for the site?

I am a 19 year-old intern in Buffalo, NY. My coworkers invited me to go drinking with them in Toronto for my farewell party since I can't drink legally in the US. Is this a good idea?

What about this one?

I am an unmarried Englishman who does business in Singapore. When visiting important clients on a business trip, they insisted I visit a brothel with them. It was made clear that if I do not, I will lose the project and likely my job. While I have no moral objections, what potential consequences will it have with my company if they find out?

Or how about this one?

It is 1965, I live in Illinois and am interviewing for a job across the border in Missouri. Interracial marriage is illegal in Missouri but legal in my state. Is it ethical to lie to my employer about the race of my spouse if asked?

Ethics/legality are rarely clear cut. Laws change over time, and by country, as do ethical codes. Rather than judging which questions are appropriate or not based on our own assumptions, we should focus on getting at the heart of the question (how to tackle ethical quandaries) which can definitely help future visitors. While these may seem like extreme examples, I think they are just as valid in tackling workplace issues as questions like, "Should I go to an interview I don't intend to accept the job (if offered)?"

  • Ethics are completely off topic at TWP. We allow i want to Ethically do X how type questions but otherwise the ethics part is off topic. Legality is absolute. That is the difference between a law and a guideline Jun 26, 2013 at 18:53
  • Your example is completely different than I worked under the table to avoid taxes and I want to know if I am going to get caught in a background check for a new job? Jun 26, 2013 at 18:54

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