Checking Applicant References: Some Help With the Hassles

Most businesses know that they should check applicants’ references by speaking with their prior employers. After all, failing to do so could open a company up to a negligent hiring claim, should the new employee turn out to be violent, harassing, or to otherwise behave inappropriately and thereby injure others. Besides, knowing how an applicant performed in a prior job can help when deciding who to hire.

But businesses are also often stymied by the pat response of "Yes, she worked here from X to Y as our sales manager. It is our policy not to provide any further information."

Of course, when a client is on the receiving end of such inquiries, I always recommend that he or she generally take the same position. However, here are some tips to acquire information you need from your applicant’s prior employers.

As a preliminary note, there is nothing legally preventing a potential employer from asking a prior employer any question they may have about an applicant. You may ask the former employer any question you would ask the applicants themselves. Of course, inquiries that would reveal personal information not directly related to the ability to do the job, confidential information, or any discriminatory questions would be off limits.

Keep in mind that former employers are sometimes happy to talk about good performers who were lost due to a spouse’s move out of town or other relocation. Moreover, sometimes the "policy" can be side-stepped with additional questions. When you want information about a potential applicant, be persistent, even if advised at first that it is not the company’s policy to provide further information.

Questions to Ask References

Some follow-up questions that can be asked include:

1) Would you rehire this person?

2) Are there any jobs for which you would recommend this person?

3) At what type of company would this person be a good fit?

4) Could you see this person having a future at our company?

5) Did you work with him/her directly?

6) Is there anything you are willing to tell me about the person?

You can also pose questions related to the company’s records such as:

1) This person says that their final salary was X, is that consistent with your records?

2) This person indicates that their employment ended due to X, is that what your records show?

If the prior employer remains adamant about refusing to answer any questions regarding the candidate, ask if they would be more willing to do so if you obtained written permission from the candidate. Some prior employers will react more favorably when you offer this option. Of course, follow up with the candidate to get this permission if you are seriously considering hiring him or her. Reticence on the part of the candidate to providing the permission sought may be a red flag to make you reconsider the hire.

If the prior employer is still reticent to respond after asking additional questions and offering to provide permission from the candidate, you might want to contact your candidate and ask if he or she knows why this prior employer is unwilling to talk about the applicant’s prior employment.

Remember, what the prior employer does not say may be just as significant for your purposes as what they do. Learn to hear between the lines.

And, most importantly, make these inquiries before you hire the applicant. I know it can be time-consuming, but taking these steps to obtain information about potential hires is important for the company’s legal protections.