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Contacting an applicant’s former employers is an essential step in the screening process. There are two types of information most employers seek from professional references:

  • Professional data: verification of dates of employment with last employer, job title, salary, performance evaluation and attendance.
  • Personal data: verification of academic credentials, driving records (if relevant) and others.

Keep in mind that you should not ask a reference any questions you are prohibited from asking an applicant. Restrict your inquiry to job-related issues.

You must also check information furnished by all candidates without discrimination against any group. Many employers have been snagged for making cursory checks of white applicants but probing more deeply in the case of minorities.

Make it your policy never to hire a candidate without a reference/background check. Your organization could be held liable for “negligent hiring” or “failure to warn” should the employee turn violent on the job. If the employee’s past history would have revealed a problem, but you didn’t spot it because you didn’t check, the courts will say you “should have known.” Your firm not only might have to pay damages but would suffer a loss of reputation.

If you ask for references without the applicant’s OK or ask the wrong questions, you risk getting sued. Therefore, make it your policy to:

  • Inform candidates that you will check references.
  • Get a signed waiver from the candidate authorizing you to contact references. (References may ask you to provide them with a copy of the authorization the applicant signed and a release of liability. So you may want to consider adding a statement to the authorization that the candidate releases references from liability for anything they say. The waiver should also provide that any reference material will remain confidential and that the candidate may not see it, whether hired or not. Without this assurance, many former employers and other common references are naturally reluctant to provide more than dates of employment and position held.)
  • Focus on the facts: What were the job responsibilities? Under what conditions did the person work best? Why did he or she leave the company? Would you rehire that individual?
  • Ask references only those questions that you can lawfully ask candidates.
  • Never rely on a single reference.  

It’s legal to check public records to verify a candidate’s credentials. You can call a university to confirm a degree or a licensing body to verify that a candidate is really certified. You can run a criminal records check to see if an applicant was ever convicted of a crime (although it’s illegal to ask about a criminal arrest, which means the person was only suspected of a crime). Some states make it illegal to refuse to hire someone convicted of a summary offense or a misdemeanor. Always check with an employment law attorney.

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