Personal Reference Checks Valuable but Require Extra Care

By Robert Capwell Feb 27, 2008
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One of the most difficult to obtain but most insightful background screens is the professional reference check. Typically, past performance is a great indicator of future performance and can confirm or uncover professionalism, productivity, job-specific skills and interpersonal communication abilities.

Obtaining references, however, is more subjective in nature than verifying basic objective information such as dates of employment, positions held, salary and reasons for leaving jobs. Following are tips for conducting professional reference checks that can help increase the likelihood of obtaining meaningful information.

Addressing Disclosure

Inquiries about job performance cross into the world of investigative consumer reporting. An investigative consumer report includes character references or personal opinions in addition to verifications of public record sources typically found on a basic consumer report. Proper written disclosure and candidate notifications for this type of inquiry, required under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), should be done upfront or within three days of requesting the report through a consumer reporting agency.

Following is sample wording for FCRA disclosure and authorization documentation:

“This report may contain information about you concerning your character, general reputation, personal characteristics, and mode of living, among other relevant things. This information may be obtained from a variety of sources, including but not limited to, government agencies, past employers, personal interviews with those who know you and others.”

Even if a company is not conducting in-depth screening that falls under the umbrella of investigative consumer reports, this language would cover the employer if it decides later to obtain professional references or other subjective information, such as supervisor interviews or other opinion-based services regarding candidates.

It is always good policy for employers to include such a statement in their FCRA disclosure and authorization, even if they are just obtaining a basic consumer report. Provide job candidates with a copy of the document titled A Summary of Your Rights Under the FCRA before the screening process begins. And be sure that the company holds in its possession proper written consent and authorization, as many references might not provide information until they are provided written consent and a signed release.

Explain the form and the reference checking process to candidates so that they understand the realities of an investigative consumer report. Emphasize that they must provide sufficient contact information and an adequate number of professional references. Remind candidates not to provide references that do not have professional ties or work experiences associated with them. Comments from next-door neighbors about how they maintain their lawns, for example, are not relevant, meaningful information.

In-sourcing vs. Outsourcing

Reference interviews conducted in house can take hours and eat up a lot of resources. Like any other outsourced service, whether a company chooses to handle this process internally is a matter of time and money. Playing phone tag and tracking down references during evening hours might not be the best way for a company’s human resources function to spend its time.

Often a company’s screening partner has trained professionals on staff that understand the art of extracting information from references and that are probably able to handle such calls better. Many are familiar with asking probing questions that might reveal periods of unemployment or uncover other names by which a job candidate is known, which could assist in other parts of the overall background check.

Sample Basic Interview Questions

  • How long have you known the subject?
  • What is your business relationship with the subject?
  • Describe [job candidate’s] professional relationship with co-workers, customers and supervisors.
  • How does the subject react in stressful situations?
  • Are there any situations in which you would avoid placing the subject?
  • What is your overall opinion of the subject?
  • What are the subject’s professional strengths?
  • In what areas do you feel the subject can improve?
  • Does the subject work better individually or in a group environment?
  • What comments or suggestions would you have for the subject’s new supervisor?

It is probable that they have shifts working across multiple time zones to catch late-night and international interviews. Many firms even have reference-takers that speak multiple languages to ensure accuracy and speed up the process. Because many reference-takers are trained on how to ask questions that provide additional insight into a candidate’s character or past behavior, reference calls might even develop additional references not listed on the candidate’s application. Finally, outsourcing to a credit reporting agency can provide protection under the FCRA.

If companies conduct reference checks in house, however, ensure that reference-takers are not crossing into the waters of discrimination in their questioning. Keep questions relevant to the position applied for and of a business nature, asking specific skill or knowledge level questions when applicable. Always obtain legal advice on proper lines of questioning prior to use so that you can confirm that that no ethical or legal boundaries will be crossed.

Recounting Histories

Like information acquired during other background screens, professional references are perishable goods,with companies experiencing diminishing returns the farther they go into applicants’ work histories. Acquiring information from the most recent references provides the most relevant and accurate accounts of the subject. These references usually are the easiest to contact, too, especially if the candidates are still working at the place of employment.

A general rule of thumb for most employers is to gather four or five professional or supervisor references to contact and to accept two or three to fulfill their mission and close the investigation. But more references might be necessary depending on candidates’ skill level and experience.

Dig deeper the higher up the position being filled is on the organizational chart, and remember: More is merrier! Take a hard stand on the number of references needed to complete reference checks, don’t skimp or cut corners, and go back to candidates for additional references if needed.

Automating Reference Checks

In addition to phone-based reference interviews, more screening firms and employers are using technology to try and improve the results of reference checks. Some firms offer web-based solutions that enable a broad set of references to respond quickly and confidentially.

Jim Ray, vice president at the screening company SkillSurvey, said of his company’s product that “normally four or five references respond to 20 specific and competency-based questions targeted for a specific job. On average, 82 percent of references respond back in 36 hours with no phone calls required.”

This type of online reference process can reduce turnaround time substantially and raise productivity while acquiring a wider range of perspectives compared to using the phone. More systematic technology-based approaches sometimes yield greater documentation management and metrics collection and analyses capabilities as well.

Still, some people believe that web-enabled reference checking does not enable a hiring manager or screening professional to ask probing questions in an ad hoc manner. While this is true, requesters always have the ability to call and ask follow-up questions on candidates after reading the initial report.

No matter what reference checking method is used, well-thought-out and executed programs yield the most valuable insight into the overall potential performance of job candidates, which, in turn, provide much more than just an applicant’s name, rank and serial number.

Robert Capwell is chief knowledge officer ofEmployment Background Investigations Inc. and co-chair of the National Association of Professional Background Screeners’ Board of Directors.

Editor’s Note: This article should not be construed as legal advice.

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