Improve Your Reference Checking and Break Through the “Stone Wall of Silence”

Reference checking an applicant’s past can make today’s hiring decision easier … but to get past a former employer’s rendition of “name, rank, and serial number,” you need some “breakthrough” strategies. Here they are:

It’s been said that “the answers to all questions of today reside in the past.”

While not true about everything, this statement has a lot of validity when hiring new employees. That’s because your employees of tomorrow likely have exhibited their skills and character traits working for someone else yesterday. It follows, then, to find out what those traits are, all you need to do is ask that someone.

Well, checking references these days is not quite that simple.

For one thing, former employers in these litigious times may be notably mum on answering your reference checking questions for fear of facing a defamation lawsuit. Many will only verify dates of employment and title … the HR version of “name, rank, and serial number.” But HR expert and author Arthur R. Pell does suggest some strategies for checking employment references that you can use to peer over this “stone wall of silence.”

Make reference checking a personal matter, not a matter for “Personnel”

First, Pell recommends talking to the candidate’s immediate supervisor, not the HR department, which is likely to only have what’s been officially recorded about the person.

Some of the most important impressions you can harvest will be personal, and thus not likely to be written down.

Pell says to ask what the person’s duties were, and then explain how important they are to the position you are filling. You might just get a comment on how well the person performed these duties along with a description of what they were.

Let your questions then run to the person’s accomplishments and how qualified he or she was to move up in the organization. And don’t forget to ask about attendance and why the person and the employer parted ways.

Pell suggests having a written checklist of questions in hand when checking references to avoid getting so caught up in conversation you miss a vital area. And ask in what skills the candidate might benefit from additional training. It’s a more positive way of asking about deficiencies.

Play employment record checking hardball

Stephen D. Bruce, PhD, PHR, and editor of BLR’s HR Manager’s Legal Reporter newsletter, has also weighed in on reference checking. He agrees that former supervisors, going back 5 to 7 years, are the ones to talk to.

“Tell them that you are asking how to manage the person in the future, not about past performance,” writes Bruce. “That way, it’s not—technically—a reference check.”

If you run into the aforementioned stone wall, Bruce advises knocking it down by playing hardball. “Say ‘I have to eliminate this candidate if I don’t get a reference,’” writes Bruce. The likely answers will be either ‘that would be a terrible mistake’ or ‘do what you have to do.’”

Bruce also suggests considering the services of background checking organizations, skilled at mining public records for criminal past, driving history, and credit ratings. And whatever you do, Bruce advises always advising candidates that their background will be checked and getting permission to check it in writing (fax it to former bosses, if needed). Also, document everything!

One reason: The risk of a “negligent hiring” lawsuit, in which you are sued for bringing on board a person whom “you should have known not to hire,” should that person later cause trouble on the job. If you face such a legal action, says Bruce, documentation that proves you performed reference checks will help indicate your good-faith effort at due diligence in hiring.