Reference Checks

Do HR managers really need to do reference checks? HR Daily Advisor editor Stephen Bruce talks about the dangers of putting off this important task in today’s HR Compliance Corner video blog.

SB: This is Steve Bruce for the HR Daily Advisor. Today’s question comes from Yvonne in Flagstaff. She asks, ‘We’re stretched pretty thin here–do we really need to do reference checks when nobody will tell you anything anyway?’

That’s a great question, Yvonne. And the answer is simple–yes, you have to do them.
Here’s why–Let’s say one of your employees engages in violent behavior or otherwise hurts another employee or client. Do you really want to be on the witness stand explaining how you ‘didn’t bother’ to do a reference check because they usually don’t get much information?  

NO, you want to say, ‘I tried every avenue and exhausted each possibility for getting a good reference check.’ So even if they don’t yield information, you conduct them and you carefully document them.

Here are some tips for getting those tight-lipped managers to open up:

  • First, get your candidate to sign a release form and send it to the person from whom you want a reference.
  • Second, ask your candidate to call that person and ask that they help out with a reference when they get your call.

If they won’t open up, try to rephrase your reference request as a request for information on how to manage the person in the future. You might hear ‘She needs close supervision’ or ‘You have to be careful about offering criticism.’

One HR manager said to a former manager, ‘You know, this candidate has a great record, and was very impressive in person, but my gut tells me something’s wrong.’ The former manager said, ‘I always think it’s a good idea to go with your gut.’

Finally, Consider ‘playing hardball.’ Say to the former manager, ‘I can’t continue to consider this person as a candidate unless I can get a reference.’ Usually, you’ll at least get either ‘that would be a mistake’ if the manager you are talking to felt positively about your candidate. And if you hear, ‘do what you have to do,’ that’s not a good sign.
So, Yvonne, first thing about references is DO THEM. They are valuable even if you are not successful in getting information. Second, there are techniques that can increase your chances of breaking through the ‘I can’t comment’ position.

Best of luck with your references and all your HR challenges.

So, now to the question of what you should do.

Most experts recommend that if you do such checks, you should at least protect yourself to some degree;

  1. First of all, there are firms, like, for example, that will perform a check for you, “redact” the information you wouldn’t want, such as race or religion, and deliver to you just the information pertinent to the candidate’s ability to do the job.
  2. If you prefer to do your checks in-house, you can achieve nearly the same protection by insuring that someone outside of the direct line of hire, like an HR staffer, does the check. Again, that person would pass on only acceptable pertinent information.
  3. You can do checks only for the top candidates, thus reducing somewhat your risk of a lawsuit.
  4. You can get a release from the applicant.

And here are a few things NOT to do:

Don‘t gain entrance to a site (like Facebook, for example) under false pretenses. And don’t assume that everything you see online is true.

So, Allison, good luck with your background checking and all your HR challenges. This is Steve Bruce for the HR Daily Advisor.

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