"Check It Out"

Checking the references of job candidates is a widely accepted procedure for most hiring managers, right? And most former managers are more than willing to share information about those candidates, correct? These questions are not so easily answered in these days of discrimination charges and lawsuits. Hiring managers are often reluctant to tackle this stage of the hiring process due to lack of training in reference checking protocol and procedures, and fear of liability from asking questions that could be perceived as discriminatory. Current or former managers of these potential candidates are even more reluctant to disclose information as their answers may be closely examined for discriminatory or defamatory substance, tone or inference.

In today’s world, every step of the employment process is under scrutiny by candidates and human resources (HR) professionals. Liability issues abound, and federal regulatory agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) could get involved. Many current and former employers have invoked a gag rule on their managers, including HR, prohibiting them from providing anything more than title, tenure and salary to potential new employers. In its 1998 Reference Checking Survey, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reported that 76% of respondents provide references when requested. However, only 13% said they would comment on past employees’ work habits, and only 11% would discuss their human relations skills.

But most hiring managers would agree that reference checks are helpful in rounding out the picture of the candidate. They provide those extra bits of information, those more subjective viewpoints of the candidate, that can make the difference between hiring him or someone else. Additionally, hiring managers can avoid future problems by using the reference process to screen for aberrant behaviors such as anger issues, violent behavior, theft, and other serious shortcomings. Employers who sidestep checking references can be held liable for “negligent hiring” if a serious problem arises with the new hire that might have been discovered by more in-depth screening, including checking references. So, how do managers on both sides conduct honest, in-depth reference checks without placing themselves or their employers in legal jeopardy?

Cautiously, experts are arming managers on both sides with some guidelines:

  • Check with legal counsel in advance on what’s allowed in reference checks.
  • Check references only for serious candidates.
  • Design both general and specific questions that address work-related issues, e.g. skills,
    strengths, work styles, and weaknesses.
  • Remember the basics: verifying title, dates of employment, salary and prior
  • Listen for tone of voice and inflection, which often say more than words.
  • Document the conversation.
  • Respect and honor the time limits of the reference.

Finally, who should conduct the reference checks? While some feel that the HR professional has more experience and a better sense of potential pitfalls, the general school of thought is that the hiring manager should conduct reference checks. He knows the job, the department, the culture, the work environment and the work team best and has the most at stake in the hiring process. A bad hire can mean work delays, bad morale, and additional staff expenditure, and can contribute to more serious worksite problems.

The pendulum , which swung from an unequivocal “yes” to a worried “no” on whether to check references or not has cautiously settled in the middle, closer to the “yes” side. Most managers and their employers agree that reference checks provide information not gained through resumes, employment applications or interviews. They also agree that the process has risks involved, but that structured, purposeful conversations with former supervisors and colleagues can paint a more well-rounded picture of a candidate, helping hiring managers make the best decisions possible. In today’s market, finding and keeping terrific employees is worth taking that calculated risk of checking references.


This article was originally published in NACS Magazine, the official trade magazine of the National Association of Convenience Stores.