Are Reference Checkers Checking the References You Give?

In yesterday’s Advisor, Employment Screening Resources (ESR) offered important policy and legal considerations for performing reference checks. Today, we’ll get their specific recommendations, and we’ll take a look at a unique resource for small HR departments.

ESR, a Novato, California-based provider preemployment screening services, offers the following suggestions for responding to requests for references:

1. Have a written policy and procedure for giving references. Make sure everyone knows what your rules for references are.

2. Send all information requests through a central source. This makes corporate responses consistent and reduces the chances that a manager will give out information that is contrary to company policy.

3. Document each request carefully. Document who is requesting the information and for what purpose, and note what responses were given. This documentation is particularly important since the reference giver may leave the company.

Remember, says ESR, that former employees often have friends call or hire paid "reference checkers" to contact a previous employer to see what sort of reference the employer is giving.

4. Ask for a release. This will provide clear evidence that the applicant authorized the request.

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5. Be wary of lawsuits. If a former employee has filed a suit, or has any sort of pending claim such as workers’ compensation, do not give out any information beyond the basics without contacting your legal department or company counsel.

When You Decide to Give Out Negative Information

If an employer does decide to give out negative information, consider the following, says ESR:

  • Employees most often seek the advice of an attorney when they are surprised by the negative information. So don’t let the former employee hear about the bad reference for the first time from the potential new employer. Handle that at the time the employee leaves.
  • Disclose only factual information that is documented.
  • Avoid conclusions; give facts instead. For example, avoid saying that a former employee had a "bad attitude." Instead, convey facts showing a failure to get along with team members. Let the facts speak for themselves.
  • Include favorable facts about the employee. This shows that you are even-handed, ESR says.
  • Finally, make sure the personnel file is factually correct. This is something that HR may do when an employee leaves.

Reference checks—a frustration, no doubt, but really, one of what, a few dozen daily HR frustrations? We’re talking about intermittent leave headaches, accommodation requests, investigations, training, interviewing, and attendance problems, just to name a few. Let’s face it, in HR if it’s not one thing, it’s another. And in a small department, it’s just that much tougher.

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