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Hiring 101 Part 10 – Reference Checks

Reference checks and other background checks are important for verifying information and impressions from the interview, and for insuring that you are aware of any serious problems in the candidate’s past. In this video, Recruiting Daily Advisor Editor Stephen Bruce talks about how to conduct meaningful reference checks.

SB: This is Steve Bruce for the Recruiting Daily Adisor. This video is the 10th in our Hiring 101 Series. It’s all about how to conduct meaningful reference checks.

Reference checks and other background checks are important for verifying information and impressions from the interview, and for insuring that you are aware of any serious problems in the candidate’s past. Think of if as “due diligence” for hiring.

These checks, in addition to helping you with your evaluation of a candidate, will also help to protect from negligence lawsuits. For example, if you hire—without having performed a reasonable background check—a new employee who commits a violent act, your organization may be deemed to have been negligent.

With whom should you speak? It is best to speak with former supervisors or managers, going back five to seven years. If this is not possible, try people who have left the organization, or former colleagues. However, be aware that these references may be friends.

At a minimum, you should do the following:

  • Verify basic employment information. (Dates, compensation, title, duties, and reason for leaving).
  • Verify degrees and credentials required for the position.
  • Explore performance. (How did this person’s performance compare with that of others in the position? What are the person’s strengths, weaknesses? What was the most important contribution? Would you recommend the person for the position I have described?)
  • Ask directly about problems. (Are you aware of any problems with drugs, alcohol, sex harassment, violence? Would you rehire this person?)

What if the former employer will only give “name, rank, and serial number”? that’s a problem. Many organizations, as a matter of policy, do not allow managers to give references beyond verifying a former employee’s title, work dates, and salary.

Fortunately, however, most managers would like to lend a hand to former employees whom they liked. So it is not impossible to break through the policy and get a reference. Here are some suggestions:

Have the candidate contact former supervisors and managers and alert them that you will be calling. Ask for their cooperation.

Get the candidate to sign a release and fax it to the person from whom you want a reference.

Explain to the former manager that you are asking for information about how to manage the person in the future; you are not seeking information on past performance. That way, it’s not—technically—a reference check.

Finally, you can play hardball. Say, “I will have to eliminate this candidate from further consideration if I cannot get your reference.” You are likely to hear one of two things: either “That would be a terrible mistake” or “Do what you have to do.”

Or, you could leave a message, “If I do not hear from you, I will assume that there were problems.”

If all fails and you cannot get a reference at all, try to get copies of performance appraisals.

Should you do a social media background check? It’s not recommended at the beginning of the hiring process—it’s just too likely that you’ll find information you don’t want about protected characteristics. Many experts now recommend doing a social media check for final candidates only.

Document your good faith efforts, even if you don’t get a reference. That alone may stave off a lawsuit for negligence should the candidate create problems after being hired.

Your final check is to compare all the information you have. Is the information you gained during the reference and background checks consistent with information contained in the application and obtained during interviews? If there are inconsistencies, you must resolve them. It’s annoying at this stage in the hiring process, but it is better to investigate potential problems before issuing an offer.

For a modest fee, agencies who specialize in this work will perform background checks for you. These checks may include criminal records, motor vehicle, credit, social security number, and others. The nature of the position dictates the extent to which you should engage in these checks. People who handle money or securities, who are involved in public safety (e.g., bus drivers), and those who have unsupervised access to vulnerable populations (e.g., child care workers or installers) should be subjected to in-depth checks.

Fees for background checks are a small price to pay for the important benefits they bring. Again, the act of performing the checks is an indication that you made a good faith effort to check the applicant’s background.

Be sure to see the next—and last—video in our Hiring 101 series, about making an offer the candidate cannot refuse.