Past Employment Checks Are Critical to the Hiring Process

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer April 28, 2017
Past Employment Checks Are Critical to the Hiring Process

CHICAGO—Not checking the past employment of potential new hires is one of the biggest mistakes employers can make, said Les Rosen, speaking at the Society for Human Resource Management's 2017 Talent Management Conference & Exposition.

Rosen, an attorney and CEO of Employment Screening Resources, a global background check firm based in Novato, Calif., said that an employer has a vested interest in finding out how successful the applicant was in previous jobs.

"Many human resources professionals believe that how a person has performed in the past is the single best indicator of how they will perform for you at your business," he said.

Past employment verifications and reference checks also protect the large financial investment the employer is making in the new hire, as well as provide defense against negligent hiring claims.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Conducting Background Investigations and Reference Checks]

He conceded that it's "always possible that a person's past performance may have been hampered by factors beyond their control, such as a dysfunctional team, lack of clear goals or resources, or a supervisor that micromanaged or mismanaged. However, a new prospective employer still needs to try to obtain as much information as possible about past performance."

Rosen said that some employers don't bother to verify past employment because they know many organizations have policies against giving out detailed information about current or former employees. He added that even if all HR receives when contacting past employers is the applicant's start and end dates and job title, that information is still vital.

"A resume is essentially a marketing tool for an applicant," Rosen said. "An applicant picks and chooses whatever information he or she wants to share. But when chest-puffing crosses the line into fabrication, an employer needs to be concerned. When you hire an applicant who uses lies and fabrication to get hired, the issue is that the same type of dishonesty will continue once they have the job."

Studies suggest that up to 40 percent of resumes have material falsifications, he said. A few of the most common fabrications claimed by job applicants are:

  • False job titles. "Applicants can easily give their career an artificial boost by promoting themselves to a supervisor position, even if they never managed anyone."
  • Knowledge, skills, abilities or experience they don't have.
  • Falsifying dates of employment to hide employment gaps. "For some applicants, it may be a seemingly innocent attempt to hide the fact that it has taken awhile to get a new job," Rosen said. "In other cases, the date fabrication can be more sinister, such as a person that spent time in [police] custody for a crime who may be trying to hide that fact."
  • Exaggerated past compensation. "Applicants have been known to exaggerate compensation to have a better starting point when negotiating the salary for the new job."

There are even services that help job seekers perpetrate employment fraud by acting as a past employer for employment verification and reference checks.

Rosen recommended employers go back a minimum of five years when checking previous employment, "although seven to 10 is much better." It depends upon the applicant's relevant work history, the sensitivity of the position and the availability of information.

He reminded attendees that the same standards that apply to interview questions also apply to reference checking. "All questions must be specifically job-related and nondiscriminatory. Never ask any question of a reference you would not ask the candidate face to face or put on an application. Focus on skills and accomplishments as well as performance issues that apply specifically to your job opening, such as the ability to meet deadlines or to work well with others on a team project."

When talking with an applicant's past employers, start with a simple verification of start date, end date and job title. Follow up with a conversation about the nature of the job itself—don't jump right away into actual performance. "That's a good way to start a conversation leading to a reference," Rosen said.

Offer to send a written release if needed. "Some employers will want to see a written release or authorization before giving out information," Rosen explained. "This practice is seen as protection against defamation and a good privacy practice before releasing more sensitive information such as past salary."

Was this article useful? SHRM offers thousands of tools, templates and other exclusive member benefits, including compliance updates, sample policies, HR expert advice, education discounts, a growing online member community and much more. Join/Renew Now and let SHRM help you work smarter.



Hire the best HR talent or advance your own career.


HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.