Reference Checks

Some people do a wonderful job at selling themselves. They have the right answers to the toughest questions. They carry themselves well and look you right in the eye when talking. You are impressed, and after an hour of interviewing them you think that your decision has been made. But these things don't always add up to the person who is right for the job and your company. Talking to former employers may help you realize this before you bring the person on board.

Unfortunately, companies are afraid of litigation from former employees if they share unfavorable facts. As a result, you're unlikely to find out if someone has an anger-management problem, excessive unexcused absences, or was convicted of stealing from the company. During a reference check, a former employer may volunteer to tell you only the good things about the applicant and leave out other things. Or, the current employer of an undesirable employee may say great things about the employee so that you will take him away.

Most companies these days have a policy to reveal only a former employee's start date, separation date, and the position they held. In some states, this is the only information that employers are legally allowed to share. Yet others may answer the question of whether or not a person is eligible for rehire with a simple “yes” or “no” answer. Some companies have gone as far as to have a “no reference check” policy. What's interesting about this is that it is common for these companies to call on others for references and expect an answer!

More Than a Phone Call

Checking references may sound like a quick task, but this isn't always the case. There may be only one person at the applicant's former employer authorized to give references and she may be hard to track down. You may call a company and be told that they will only verify information with the signed consent of the applicant. This means calling the applicant back in to sign a consent form, sending it to the company via fax or mail, and waiting for a response. It can be frustrating when you need someone to start working right away and have a delay in finalizing the hire.

Before the end of an interview with someone you are likely to hire, ask him to sign a consent form for reference checks addressed to his last two or three employers. It will save you a step if you are asked to provide one when you call to check references.

A consent form to check references should include the employee's name, social security number, dates of employment, position, and a statement giving permission to verify the information. Include a signature line with the date for the employee to sign. You may prepare a checkbox option for the employer to indicate whether or not the information is correct. If the information is incorrect, provide a space for the employer to explain. You may also include questions about the applicant's work habits and behavior, but employers with strict policies about what they will share may not answer them. It is reasonable to ask to have the completed form returned to you within twenty-four hours. Some employers prefer to respond over the telephone and will do so once they have signed consent.

You may also ask an applicant for written consent to view past performance appraisals and inquire about disciplinary action that may be in the personnel file. Your state labor board may prohibit you from asking for this information, so find out first if it's legal. There is a listing of each state's labor board in Appendix C and you will read more about reference checks in Chapter 10.

Easy Reference Checks and Automated Systems

Applicants who are proactive will contact previous employers, tell them that they are looking for a job, and ask them to be available as a professional reference. You'll be presented with a list of former supervisors pleased to help the applicant. These people are usually the ones likely to answer specific questions about the applicant. Again, the company may have strict policies about offering information and a manager who wants to answer the questions may not be able to. They may volunteer a comment about wishing that the employee still worked there or something else to let you know that the employment period was a positive one.

Many large companies have moved toward an automated employee verification system. Some companies charge a fee for the use of the service. If there is a cost associated with checking the reference, it is worth it. These systems usually work by keying in the applicant's social security number, followed by a computerized voice giving you the information that the company is allowed to share. There is no live person to talk to and no chance to ask additional questions.

Reference-Check Questions

During a reference check, focus on questions about the demonstrated ability to perform specific tasks, work ethics, teamwork, and behavior. Here are some examples:

  • Tell me about a time when he became frustrated about something. How did he handle it?

  • How would you describe the individual's ability to get along with others?

  • Does he adapt well to change? Please give me an example.

  • He says that he was responsible for payroll processing from start to finish. What were the tasks he accomplished to get the job done?

  • Does he need a lot of supervision?

  • Please tell me about a time when he displayed loyalty toward the company.

If you are doing reference checks on two runners up for a position, ask the same questions for both applicants. This will give both a fair opportunity to get the job, provided you have cooperative former employers for both. In the event of two equally qualified applicants, it's the reference check that may put one person ahead of the other.

If you are considering hiring someone who is employed by another company, be almost certain that you will be offering a position before starting a reference check. Get permission from the applicant before verifying employment with his current employer. Most job applications include a section that asks this question.

An employer who gives a reference check is offering you a valuable service. Thank them for their time and document the conversation along with your other notes gathered during the recruitment process. Keep everything attached to the employment application whether or not you make a job offer. Applications, interview notes, and reference-check information for all applicants not hired should be kept for at least one year. Your state labor board may suggest a different timeframe for retention.

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