Seeing Behind the Mask

In an online world where people can find out who your friends are in an instant, will traditional reference-checking practices prevail?

By Dori Meinert Feb 1, 2011
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The top candidate for a physician’s job in a small-town Midwestern hospital seemed to be a shoo-in—until it was discovered on Facebook that she liked books on witchcraft.

While that might not have been an issue in other areas, the hospital’s chief executive officer didn’t think it would go over well in the conservative community the hospital serves. The physician wasn’t hired, recalls Van Allen, the recruiter who conducted the search.

“There’s nothing that screams more accurately who you are than a Facebook page,” says Allen, owner of The Hire Connection in Lake of the Ozarks, Mo.

Most employers, like that CEO, are looking for ways to see behind the mask that a job candidate often wears to discover what the individual is really like. Traditionally, employers have relied on professional reference checks to determine whether a potential new hire’s descriptions of his past performance, job skills and integrity are accurate. They contact former supervisors or co-workers to help them decide whether the applicant would be a good fit with the organization.

However, costly court judgments have prompted many careful corporate attorneys to limit what HR professionals can say about past employees—even good employees who would benefit from the exchange. Now, this obstacle appears to be pushing equally careful HR recruiters to explore new methods for obtaining information, including the legally risky business of searching social networking sites. But can recruiters replace the traditional phone call?

Obstacles Mount

Pat Lund, SPHR, director of human resources for Total Card Inc., knows it’s getting harder to get useful information from candidates’ references. Her Sioux Falls, S.D., organization provides credit card and call center services, and employs 500 workers. She asks each candidate to provide three professional references. From that list, “We hope to get one viable confirming reference,” she says.

If an employer doesn't conduct reference checks and an employer harms the company or his co-workers, the company could face a claim for negligent hiring.

Typically, she continues, the candidate’s past employers will only verify the dates of employment, job title and sometimes salary. “I usually am not able to get a yes or no answer to whether they are rehireable,” Lund says. “However, I will find some employers who are willing, like us, to just give us a cautionary ‘Think before you do that.’ We do appreciate that.

“Early in my career, it was very easy,” recalls Lund, a 29-year HR veteran. “The technology wasn’t there, so everything was done by phone. You would pretty much be guaranteed of getting someone because they would answer their phone. … It was more of a free flow of information.”

Her experience is common. In a 2010 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) poll on background checking:

  • 98 percent of 433 responding members said their organizations would verify dates of employment for current or former employees.
  • 68 percent said they wouldn’t discuss work performance.
  • 82 percent said they wouldn’t discuss character or personality.
  • 87 percent said they wouldn’t disclose a disciplinary action.

While some organizations may be tempted to give up checking references altogether, employment law attorneys recommend forging ahead. If an employer doesn’t conduct reference checks and an employee harms the company or his co-workers, the company could face a claim for negligent hiring, warns Christine Howard, a partner with the law firm Fisher & Phillips LLP in Tampa, Fla.

If “they document that they attempted to do it, that will show a good-faith effort on their part to hire individuals who should be in the workplace,” she says.

Despite frequent turndowns, most recruiters still make the effort. In the SHRM poll, 76 percent of the respondents said they conduct reference checks for all job candidates and 22 percent said they check references for select candidates. They most commonly check the references of applicants who will have access to confidential employee data such as salaries or medical information, those who will have financial responsibilities, those who will have access to company property, and those in senior executive positions. Only 2 percent said they don’t conduct reference checks at all.

The HR Runaround

Many HR professionals prefer phoning candidates’ past employers—as opposed to sending an e-mail or outsourcing the job—because sometimes they can catch someone who will talk. Many try to avoid other organizations’ HR departments with the goal of getting the candidate’s former supervisor.

Picking up the phone is labor-intensive, acknowledges Cydney B. Miller, SPHR, assistant human resources director at Clarksville Montgomery School System in Clarksville, Tenn. However, “the quality of information … is better.” Miller is a member of SHRM’s Staffing Management Special Expertise Panel.

She and others say they learn by listening carefully to the tone of someone’s voice and noting any hesitations. It’s like deciphering code. “There’s something about the shift of the tone of the conversation that can indicate something may or may not be there,” says Rhemila D. Smith, PHR, human resources manager for Balfour Beatty Construction’s Florida division in Plantation. “You can feel the differential even if they’re only giving you the basics.”

Amy Wellons, HR benefits manager for Salisbury Country Club in Midlothian, Va., tries to draw out information by asking the same question in different ways. “If they won’t answer one question, I just go to the next question and then, if I feel they’re starting to open up, I ask again,” she explains.

The extent of the inquiry depends on the type of business, the size of the organization and the job responsibilities. For example, in hiring engineers who will have responsibility for infrastructure that could affect the lives of thousands of people, the recruiter may dig deeper. At Greeley and Hansen, a global environmental and engineering consulting company based in Chicago, HR staff members usually check at least the past three employers listed by the candidate and then will find others on their own, says John Robak, chief operating officer and executive vice president.

At the end, “We might have talked to six or eight people who would give us a pretty good picture of somebody’s background, plus verification of their licensing and academic background,” he says.

“Past performance is really the best indicator of future performance,” Robak says. The company’s thorough background-checking practices help keep the engineer staff turnover to a low 3 percent.

Greeley and Hansen outsources the work of verifying academic degrees, but the HR staff and hiring managers call candidates’ past employers. “I encourage our hiring manager to do at least one himself so he can hear firsthand some of the feedback,” Robak says. “That can lead to even more powerful results.” Plus, the hiring manager can get into the technical specifics of a job with the reference.

But organizations should ensure that hiring managers are trained, lest the employer get into legal trouble as a result of a hiring manager asking inappropriate questions. The same questions that are ill-advised in an interview are off-limits in a conversation with a reference, says attorney Keith Watts, a managing shareholder at the law firm Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart PC in Orange County, Calif.

“The more a person is trained in the do’s and don’ts, the better off the company will be,” Watts advises.

Electronic Solutions

Large companies are more apt to outsource reference checks to vendors simply because of the volume of hiring they do. Employers that choose a vendor are “guaranteed that the references are going to be checked as opposed to a recruiter forgetting or being bogged down,” says Jeff Wizceb, vice president of business development for HRPlus, a background-screening company based in Chicago. HRPlus staffers phone the references but follow up with e-mail if there is no response.

Koch Industries Inc., with more than 70,000 employees in more than 60 countries, contracts with a vendor that sends electronic forms to references. It saves the HR staff time, says Dionna Keels, a member of SHRM’s Staffing Management panel and a recruiter for Koch until she left to become a consultant.

According to last year’s SHRM poll, 48 percent of the respondents said they outsourced some or all reference checks, far less than the 88 percent that outsourced criminal background checks.

Some background-screening vendors, such as HireRight in Irvine, Calif., offer integrated services that allow employers to use their current software to send applicant data to the vendor, which completes background and reference checks. The results are typically sent back to the employer’s applicant tracking system as part of one consolidated background report, says Catherine Aldrich, HireRight’s vice president of operations.

Other employers are turning to online surveys that return more comments more quickly. With this method, the recruiter sends an e-mail link to the candidate. The candidate then sends the link to his references, asking them to fill out the online survey. Safeguards are built in to prevent candidates from falsifying responses. For example, these systems will flag responses sent from the same address or domain name. The vendor collects the anonymous survey responses and prepares an analysis for the employer.

The anonymity encourages past supervisors to open up without fear of legal reprisal, Aldrich says.

“People are very candid. It’s amazing,” adds Jennifer Susi, selection and recruitment manager for Asante Health System in Medford, Ore., who recently switched to a web-based survey tool offered by SkillSurvey Inc. in Wayne, Pa. Asante is using SkillSurvey to screen applicants before they are interviewed, eliminating about 8 percent to 10 percent of otherwise qualified applicants, she says. The turnover for employees within their first three months at Asante has declined from 10.1 percent to
6.6 percent since the process was implemented. “For me, it means we’re doing a better job providing our managers with the right folks,” Susi says.

For a traditional reference check by phone, it takes 76 minutes to try to contact three references and reach two, says Yves Lermusi, CEO of Checkster, a background-screening company in Mill Valley, Calif. His company offers a web-based tool that is similar to SkillSurvey’s. Using the tool takes about two minutes to trigger the process. Recruiters spend five minutes to read the report, he says. A typical customer gets six responses from eight references.

Both SkillSurvey and Checkster have increased their client bases significantly in the past several years—possibly a sign of the increased popularity of this technology. SkillSurvey has gone from 75 to more than 500 clients in three years. Since 2006, Checkster has attracted about 150 customers.

Proceed with Caution

Recruiters for about 45 percent of employers are using social networking sites to research job candidates, a jump from 22 percent in 2008, according to a June 2009 survey of 2,600 hiring managers. Another 11 percent plan to start using social networking sites for screening. Of those who conducted online searches, 35 percent found content on the sites that caused them not to hire a candidate, according to the survey. And, in a 2010 Microsoft-commissioned survey, 70 percent of the 275 U.S. recruiters, HR professionals and hiring managers that responded said they have rejected candidates based on information they found online.

Raymond Lee, CEO of Careerminds in Wilmington, Del., warns job seekers that come to his firm for career counseling that employers are trolling the Internet, specifically Facebook and LinkedIn, for information about them. “We’ve actually heard employers asked for their user names and passwords,” Lee says. “It’s getting pretty aggressive.”

Balfour Beatty’s Smith finds a “direct correlation” between the upswing in employers using social networking sites and the dearth of information they can get from traditional reference checks. But, she says, “I’m not sure that’s the route they should be following. I have a Facebook page, and I tend to keep that private.”

Recruiters at Greeley and Hansen use the Internet and social networking sites as sources “just to give us some additional insight or information in terms of someone’s cultural fit for our organization,” Robak says, adding that the recruiters follow legal advice in doing so. Sometimes the information reflects a positive development, such as when a candidate posts a speech or conference presentation.

Lawyers caution employers to tread carefully when using the Internet, particularly social networking sites, to check out job candidates. If an employer uncovers facts via a candidate’s Facebook page that weren’t disclosed in the interview—a battle with cancer, for example—the company could face a discrimination claim if the person isn’t hired, warns Hope Goldstein, a partner at the law firm Bryan Cave LLP in New York City. The employer could also be subject to privacy claims or run afoul of state laws. Or, if a recruiter asks a friend or even a child to log onto Facebook for him or her, it could be seen as a violation of the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986.

Many of the same guidelines offered for traditional reference checks apply to searching Internet and social networking sites, lawyers say. At a minimum, employers should revise their policies to limit people who can perform searches to HR staff, who can shield those making hiring decisions from information that can’t be legally used, such as health problems. Include a list of objective job-related criteria to follow, Goldstein says, and ask for the candidate’s written consent.

Hiring managers who aren’t properly trained should be warned against conducting such searches because they may turn to the Internet by instinct. “We all know policies are nice, but most people don’t read them,” says Reid Bowman, general counsel for San Francisco-based ELT, which specializes in ethics and compliance training.

In the end, experts say, checking references isn’t just about digging up dirt on a candidate. It’s about finding the right candidate for the job.

Consultant Wendy Bliss, J.D., SPHR, author of Legal Effective References: How to Give Them and Get Them (SHRM, 2001) concludes that “A real thorough reference check is giving you someone else’s perspective on that person’s ability to do a job well and their suitability for your organization.”

The author is a senior writer for HR Magazine.

Outsourcing Reference Checks

Do not outsource 52%
Completely outsource 28%
Partially outsource 20%

Source: Background Checking: General Background Checks, SHRM poll, January 2010.

Reasons for Checking References

To reduce legal liability for negligent hiring


To determine that credentials such as education, position or skills are accurately represented by the job candidate

To assess past performance and predict future performance

To reduce or prevent theft and embezzlement, other criminal activity


To ensure a safe work environment for employees


To comply with applicable state law requiring background checks for particular positions such as day care teachers or licensed medical practitioners


To assess the overall trustworthiness of the job candidate

To determine if salary history is accurately represented by the job candidate


Source: Background Checking: Conducting Reference Background Checks, SHRM poll, January 2010.

Reference Checking Checklist

Employment lawyers and HR professionals recommend that employers:

  • Develop a written policy outlining procedures for checking references, and then follow it.
  • Restrict the employees who conduct reference checks to HR staff or hiring managers trained to ask appropriate questions.
  • Ask each applicant to provide at least three professional references.
  • Obtain the applicant’s written consent to contact former employers.
  • Try to contact at least two of the references via phone call, e-mail or online survey.
  • Document attempts to contact references, and note their responses.

When Checks Go Far Afield

Boca Raton Regional Hospital in Boca Raton, Fla., outsources reference checks and academic verifications for most of its 2,700 positions, reserving the HR staff for the reference checks on high-level positions, says Brian Altschuler, executive director of human resource operations. Many health care workers have received their education in other countries, requiring sources in those countries to verify their degrees and past employment.

“Most people don’t realize the complexity of having to validate and verify international education,” Altschuler says. “If you can work with a company that has folks on the ground in those countries, the validity and the turnaround is a lot stronger.”

He adds that workers are changing jobs more frequently or working two jobs to stay afloat in today’s economy, further complicating efforts to verify past employment.

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