One-Third of Résumés Lie—Reference Check, Anyone?

Everyone agrees that reference checks are important, but actually doing them is difficult. Employers want to get information about candidates, but when other employers want the same information from them, they don’t want to give it. That’s frustrating, says Employment Screening Resources (ESR).

One-Third of Résumés Contain a Lie

According to industry experts, up to one-third of résumés contain material falsehoods, ESR says. Remember, for employers, the résumé is a factual document, but for applicants, it is a marketing tool. ESR is a Novato California-based provider preemployment screening services.

What Can You Achieve with Reference Checks?

Achieve better hiring fits. Often, the best indicator of future performance is past performance, says ESR. And the best way to find out about that is the reference check. A general rule: Information often trumps intuition.

Unexplained gaps. By verifying dates of employment, an employer can make sure that there are no unexplained employment gaps that might signal trouble.

Protect the investment. Employers make a substantial investment when hiring. Bad decisions create untold administrative, financial, and legal difficulties, not to mention substantial cost, wasted time, and delayed productivity.

Honesty and accuracy. Verification also confirms the honesty and accuracy of the résumé.

Note, says ESR, that verification means checking factual matters, like start date, title, and salary. Reference checking refers to qualitative matters (job performance, strong points, weak points, and so on).

Policy and Legal Considerations

As we mentioned above, unfortunately, employers want to get reference information, but they don’t like to give it. Employers fear defamation lawsuits if they give any information beyond basics like dates of service and title, says ESR. And if the employee in question has filed any sort of suit or made complaints, there’s the added possibility of retaliation lawsuits.

Some states provide protections for employer references. For example, in California, an employer giving a reference has protection, provided the information is:

  • Job related
  • Based on credible evidence
  • Made without malice

But even with that protection, ESR says, many legal sources still believe that the risk of a defamation claim outweighs any benefit to an employer from giving reference information. Furthermore, they point out, what constitutes “credible evidence” and “job related” can be open to interpretation.

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If You Can’t Say Something Nice …

One alternative for employers is to provide only positive reference information. However, even that policy can lead to legal difficulty, says ESR.

First of all, some courts have found that employers have a duty to provide full and complete recommendations. In one California case, an employer gave a positive recommendation, leaving out important negative information. The court ruled that the employer providing a recommendation owes a duty to protect employers and third parties and could not misrepresent the qualifications and character of a former employee where there was a substantial risk of physical injury.

A similar problem occurs when employers give recommendations only for employees with good records. Employees who are not given recommendations may sue for defamation on the basis that no recommendation is equivalent to a bad recommendation.

No Such Thing as ‘Off the Record’

There’s no such thing as “off the record” when it comes to references, says ESR. Whatever HR says to a reference checker must be revealed during a deposition. There is no privilege involved.

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Reading Between the Lines

Sometimes you’ll get a lot of information when you get “no information,” ESR says. Two examples:

An HR manager asked for a reference says, “Why don’t you ask the applicant to send us a release for his performance appraisals files; they would make interesting reading.”

In another case, a reference checker said to the applicant’s former manager, “Everything says I should hire this lady, but I have a gut feeling that something’s wrong.” The former manager said, “I always think it’s a good idea to go with your gut.”

In tomorrow’s Advisor, ESR’s tips for reference checking, and an introduction to a unique program geared specifically toward small or even one-person HR departments.


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