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How to Check a Job Applicant’s References

Getting a candid reference for a job applicant from an employer is tougher than ever these days. Because employers know that both saying too much and saying too little can have legal consequences, they’re increasingly wary of being specific about past employees and their work histories.

Although companies have been sued for not disclosing enough information about former workers, others have paid enormous settlements because they provided negative references — whether true or false.

Because of these difficulties, rushing through the reference-checking process — or bypassing it altogether — to make a quick hire may be tempting. But getting reliable information from former supervisors and peers is an important task to complete before selecting someone as an employee of your company.

Here are some tips on approaching this often-difficult process. These tips apply to you directly if you’re the hiring manager; if you’re not, they’re for you to communicate to line managers who are spearheading the hiring process in your organization.

  • Let the candidate know that you check references. Be clear with candidates from the outset that your company will be checking their references. Checking references is perfectly legal as long as the information being verified is job related and doesn’t violate discrimination laws.

    Informing applicants that you’re checking usually helps ensure that the answers they give you during the interview are truthful, especially when you start the interview by saying, “If we’re interested in you, and you’re interested in us, we’ll be checking your references.”

  • Don’t delegate it. If the employee will report directly to you, you should check the references. No matter how thorough a delegate or deputy may be, the hiring manager will have corollary questions that may not occur to others. Also, calling someone at your same level may establish greater camaraderie that will prompt a more honest and detailed reference.

    Checking references yourself is also a great way to gain insight from a former supervisor on how best to manage the individual. If you lack the time to do the complete job, then compromise by assigning just part of the reference checking to capable co-workers in your group. Handle one, preferably two, yourself.

  • Use responses from the interview. Asking candidates during the job interview what their former employers are likely to say about them can provide you with a good starting point for getting the former employer to talk openly. You may not get a totally frank answer, but you can get valuable comments and insights. After all, the candidate must assume that you’re going to check out his answers.

  • For the best responses, pick up the phone. Don’t put much stock in written references presented to you by candidates. They’re of limited value. Many are prepared at the time of termination and, because firing a person is a sensitive task, the employer may have focused on the positive and few, if any, negatives.

    E-mailing companies is usually ineffective as well. References aren’t likely to be as candid or as detailed in writing as they would be verbally, if they respond at all. Companies that do respond aren’t likely to be very timely.

    The best way to communicate with references is via phone. Calling gives you an opportunity to ask spontaneous questions based upon what was said in response to one of your primary questions. You can often detect enthusiasm, or lack of it, if you pay attention to tone of voice.

You don’t need to limit your search for reference information to only those people the applicant suggests. You may find people in your own circle of professional acquaintances or friends with firsthand knowledge of the candidate who probably aren’t as reluctant as a former employer may be to level with you. Also, ask the candidate’s references for names of other individuals you may contact for information.

Try to be fair, however. If you get information that puts the candidate in a bad light, try to get verification from one or two other sources, just to make sure that what you’re hearing isn’t sour grapes from one specific individual.

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