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HR Magazine - June 2000: The Whole Truth

HR Magazine, June 2000

Vol. 45, No. 6

How to get the real story when checking applicants' references.

It's happened before and it'll happen again. You call a reference, seeking information about a job candidate. You want the good stuff, but all you get are a job title and dates of service. "Sorry, I can't say more," the reference says. "It's company policy."

A fear of litigation holds many employers to a "name, rank and serial number" policy when it comes to giving out information about former employees. But professional reference-checkers say they almost always manage to dig out far more than basic facts.

The trick, they say, is to get the right paperwork, talk to the right people and ask the right questions. Only then will HR be able to get a true picture of job candidates.

Fear of Lawsuits

Many employers are afraid that something negative said about former employees could lead to a defamation or invasion-of-privacy lawsuit.

Employers almost always win such cases, according to labor attorneys, but that doesn't stop them from zipping their lips when prospective employers call.

"Employers want to avoid lawsuits, even lawsuits they might win," says Henry Morris, a partner at the Washington, D.C., law firm Arent, Fox, Kintner, Plotkin & Kahn. About one in five organizations refuses to give references at all, mainly because of liability concerns, according to a 1998 reference-checking survey of 854 HR professionals by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) in Alexandria, Va.

But a close-mouthed policy does a disservice to both employers and employees, experts say. It can force employers to make hiring decisions without complete information about all candidates, possibly leading to costly mistakes. It also hurts qualified candidates who may not get jobs because employers never get a full picture of their skills and personalities.

The say-nothing approach is nothing short of hypocritical, charges Paul Barada, president of Barada Associates Inc., a national reference-checking firm based in Rushville, Ind. "The companies who are most adamant about adhering to name, rank and serial number are the most anxious to get as much information about prospective employees as they can," he says.

But withholding critical information about ex-employees can lead to legal hot water, too. For example, if an employer fails to reveal during a reference check that someone stole on the job and the newly hired employee then steals at his new job, the new employer could be sued for negligent hiring (see " Laws Protect Reference Checks").

Despite this litigious environment, reference checkers say they manage to get people to talk openly about former bosses, subordinates and peers.

"The vast majority will speak. The question is how they're approached and how you're asking them to help you," says Peter LeVine of Peter LeVine Associates Inc., a Framingham, Mass.-based reference-checking firm.

Here are some of the tricks of the trade.

Be Prepared

Before you pick up the phone, be prepared. The first step in any reference check should be to obtain a release form, signed by the job applicant, in which he or she consents to have references contacted (as well as credit and criminal background checks performed) and waives his or her right to legal action against employers based on what references say.

This commonly used form not only assuages employers' legal fears but also can be faxed to reluctant references to get them to speak candidly.

Be sure to have the right people perform reference checks. HR staff members who are distracted by other duties and people who have met the job candidate aren't suited for the job.

"The person who has interviewed the applicant should never be the one to call references. Once you've decided to hire someone, you don't ask the questions objectively," says Doug Hahn, president of HR Plus, a reference-checking company based in Evergreen, Colo. "That's a cardinal rule that almost no one follows."

Internal reference checks should be performed by the HR department or other experienced staff, experts say. If it's affordable, hiring an outside firm that does reference checks saves time and trouble. These firms present written reports of their results, often in three days or less.

"Since we're not trying to make a placement and haven't met the candidate, we provide an independent evaluation," Barada says.

Regardless of who performs the reference checks, it's essential to talk to the right people, experts advise. By all means, call the people the job candidate suggests. But don't stop there.

Two-thirds of human resources professionals do stop there, the SHRM survey shows. As a result, they're stuck trying to locate former co-workers or supervisors who've moved on to other employers. They also end up talking only to people who say positive things about the candidate.

To avoid this "halo effect," ask job candidates or candidates' primary references for more names. "Have the candidate do some of the legwork for you," advises Wendy Bliss, SPHR, a principal with Bliss & Associates, a Colorado Springs, Colo., HR consulting firm. Again, have that consent and waiver form in hand.

It's fine not to contact a candidate's current boss, but often the candidate can be coaxed into naming a co?worker who will speak confidentially, says Barada. Barry Nadell, president of InfoLink Screening Services Inc. in Encino, Calif., recommends that supervisors be contacted after an applicant accepts a job. "It's amazing how many times we get negative information from a current employer," he adds.

Three references per candidate are usually enough, say professional reference-checkers and HR managers. Few see little, if any, value in personal references—relatives, clergy and the like—except for first-time employees. They're not considered relevant or objective.

Even HR managers admit that HR staff are of little help unless they've worked closely with a job candidate. The best bet is to call a variety of people—supervisors, subordinates and peers—who are most likely to know about a candidate's working habits, skills and interactions with others.

Mining Gold

So, how do you get information that tells you what a prospective employee is really like?

With "persistence and a lot of psychology," says Janice Rolnick, president of Credential Check & Personnel Services in Farmington Hills, Mich.

It's best to start with simple, non-threatening questions, such as those about the facts of employment. Then move on to open-ended questions about the candidate's job performance and personality traits. (For a list of questions, see page 88.) Using a script helps ensure consistency.

The key is to gain the reference's trust by conveying the air of a friend asking for advice. "Making it conversational, you can find out a heck of a lot more," says Amy J. Seltz, SPHR, director of HR at MedPlus Inc., a Cincinnati developer of health-care software. "Just be friendly."

"The idea is to make them feel comfortable," adds LeVine. Never force references to respond. If they can't or won't answer a particular question, go on to the next one.

Open-ended questions are better than yes-or-no ones, experts say. As with job interviews, go with the behavioral-assessment approach. Wrong: Did Bob get along with his co-workers? Right: Tell me about how Bob got along with his co-workers.

Although most reference checks are done by phone, that's not always the case.

Alain Hebert, SPHR, director of HR at InoTech, a computer systems management company in Fairfax, Va., first calls references to establish contact. Then he asks if it's OK to fax or e-mail a two-page questionnaire, most of which asks for numerical ratings of various attributes. There's room at the end of the form for comments and recommendations.

"The form is a low threat. We use that information and what we've gained during the (follow-up) interview" with the reference, Hebert says.

Questioners must also tune into a reference's style and listen for subtle cues, such as tone of voice and pauses. A long pause can indicate a reference's reluctance to say something negative, for instance. Velga Drillis-Eizis, a corporate recruiter for Unitrin Data Systems, an insurance-company division in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., says, "People who have good things to say about an employee usually can't stop talking. That doesn't mean a person who is short and sweet doesn't value an employee."

Non-talkative types may feel more at ease answering "rating" questions-for example, "Can you please rate the candidate's job performance on a scale of 1 to 5?" If they start to loosen up, try more probing questions. And don't forget the follow-up. "Will you elaborate on that?" is a favorite question among reference-checkers.

If a reference balks at any or all questions, try these last resorts. Calm references' legal worries by faxing them the job candidate's waiver form. Ask candidates to call references and urge them to talk. Offer references confidentiality. Tell them that their comments won't appear in a written report, but that they will be verbally communicated to the client.

Nadell of InfoLink says a reference once told him, off the record, that a candidate for chief financial officer had settled an embezzlement charge by a former employer. He told his client, "There's something off the record that you should know about" and urged the client to call the reference for details.

Nadell also suggests asking if the candidate is eligible for rehire. If the answer is no, ask, "Is the candidate ineligible for rehire or is it your policy not to hire former employees?"

Bliss says she asks the silent types whether their failure to provide information means a problem with the candidate. "The way they respond may be a tip-off to whether there are problems or not," she says.

In the end, reference-checking isn't just about uncovering a candidate's lies or flaws, but about finding the best person for the job. Barada says, "We find dirt about 30 percent of the time, but most of the time you find the skill set, the personality, the management style don't fit what the client's looking for. We try to make sure the candidate is really right for the job."

Hahn of HR Plus adds, "If you're successful at it, you'll have a stronger workforce."

Carolyn Hirschman is a business writer based in Rockville, Md.


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