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December 11, 2017

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Maximizing the Effectiveness of Reference Checks

They're not the most interesting part of the job, but good recruiters and hiring managers understand the importance of doing reference checks on job candidatesóboth to make sure the candidate is indeed as capable as he or she claims to be, and to protect their company from legal or other problems that might result from hiring a candidate with a troubled past.

Unfortunately, checking a candidate's references is not always easy. Wary of potential defamation lawsuits, many employers have policies of not giving references, or of providing only basic factual information such as dates of employment and title.

Getting Useful Information From Employer References If you conduct reference checks in-house, you need a strategy to persuade former employers to give candid evaluations of candidates' performances.

Wendy Bliss of Bliss & Associates, a consulting firm in Colorado Springs, Colorado that specializes in employment law and human resources management, suggests the following steps for effective in-house reference checking:

  1. Obtain Written Release From the Applicant. Have the applicant sign a consent form allowing you to check references and releasing both the hiring employer and former employers from liability resulting from the ensuing exchange of information. Releases should be written broadly, such that they allow the company to contact not only those references mentioned explicitly in the person's application, but all pertinent people.

    "A company is proceeding at its own peril if it does not let applicants know up front that it may be checking references, and get approval to do so," Bliss says.

    Providing references with copies of the signed release form can be instrumental in encouraging a candid response from the candidate's former employers.

  2. Inform the Reference of Applicable Immunity Statutes. Due to the rise in the number of defamation lawsuits resulting from negative references, many states have enacted reference-checking immunity laws protecting employers from civil liability when giving references in good faith. Unfortunately, many employers are unaware of these laws. If the state in which one of the candidate's references does business has an immunity statute, consider informing the reference of that fact. Former employers are more likely to provide useful information if they know they are protected.

  3. Talk to the Applicant's Former Supervisor. It is generally best to speak with an applicant's former supervisor rather than someone in the human resources department. A supervisor will have had more firsthand experience with the applicant, and can provide a more detailed evaluation. In addition, supervisors are much more likely to be forthcoming than their counterparts in human resources.

    "Even though many employers have 'name, rank, and serial number' policies, many supervisors are willing to break the policies for a good employee," says Bliss.

  4. Ask the Reference to Rate the Employee on a Scale. Many references who are reluctant to volunteer information about a former employee will agree to respond to questions that ask them to rank the candidate on a scale of one to ten with respect to specific qualities. Questions of this kind might include: On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate the applicant's attendance record? On a scale of one to ten, how would you rank the applicant's customer service skills?

Outsourcing Reference Checks

While 85 percent of companies conduct background checks in-house, some employers choose to outsource their reference checking, or at least some of the process. Enlisting the services of a reference-checking agency can be especially beneficial if you wish to do an in-depth background check that includes the job seeker's criminal, credit, or driving history.

It's important to note that companies that use third-party background-checking services must comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). Under the FCRA, employers must procure written authorization from the applicant before obtaining information about him or her from an agency. Furthermore, the employer must provide a copy of the report to the applicant if he or she is not hired as a result of the information received from the agency. For more information, visit the Federal Trade Commission website.

- Kristin Kane

Kristin Kane is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.