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Checking applicant references: How to dig the dirt–legally

by on
in Hiring,Human Resources

As part of the hiring process, supervisors are sometimes called on to check an applicant’s references.

Those phone calls can help you accurately assess a person’s strengths, weaknesses and past job performance. But checking references can also be challenging—and legally tricky.

Many past employers may provide only basic information about their ex-employees, such as salary and length of employment. The goal: They want to avoid lawsuits from former workers.

If you are able to get an applicant’s former supervisor on the line, here are six guidelines for soliciting information without bumping into legal issues:

1. Provide brief and general background information on the job opening without using the words “reference,” “strengths” and “weaknesses” because they could generate reluctance.

2. Keep the tone conversational, not interrogative. Listen to answers without interrupting. Request employment information in small chunks to avoid creating defensiveness.

3. Start with questions that solicit “yes” and “no” answers. Then probe with open-ended inquiries. Example:

  • What was the salary at the beginning of employment? At the end?
  • Please give me a general idea of the duties performed at the beginning of employment? What about at the end of employment?
  • Was the candidate ever promoted? Why or why not?

4. Use information provided by the candidate. If a reference declines to answer basic questions about job responsibilities and performance, read the description of duties from the candidate’s résumé and ask if it’s accurate. That’ll give you a hint of the applicant’s honesty, too.

5. Don’t ask questions that require blatantly subjective answers. For example, don’t ask a reference: “How do you think the candidate would perform in the job opening I described?” Such a question can inhibit references who are concerned about providing information.

6. Avoid legally sensitive topics. Never ask questions that relate to the applicant’s age, marital status, race, color, age, sex, religion and national origin. If applicants are rejected, they use such questions as evidence to prove you discriminated against them in hiring.

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