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The Reference Check Challenge: 10 Ways to Get Beyond Title and Dates

In Interviews — by Riia O'Donnell

reference-check

“Title and dates,” says the world-weary HR representative.

“I’m hoping to get a little more information, we’re all set to hire but we have a few…” you say.

“Our company policy is to verify job title and dates of employment only,” they interrupt.

“Is there a department head or manager I could speak with who could provide more information?” you sheepishly inquire.

“Our policy is to verify job title and dates only,” they robotically respond, “if a manager spoke with you, they would be in violation of our company policy and could be subject to disciplinary action. Did you want those dates and the title?”

“Yes, thank you.”

In our increasingly litigious society, it can seem harder for HR pros and hiring managers to get reference information than to win the lottery. Even employers that would love to give good references are hesitant, worried the policy that allows them to reward good work could come back and bite them when a bad employee needs a referral. As daunting a task it may seem, though, reference checks are critical to ensuring a great hire and a long-term employee.

Background-screening provider HireRight found that while 86 percent of companies have discovered at least one lie on a candidate’s resume or application, only 58 percent check employment and references, and only 32 percent verify education.

A CareerBuilder survey found that common applicant lies discovered by employers include:

  • skill set (62 percent)
  • job responsibilities (54 percent)
  • job title (39 percent)
  • dates of employment (31 percent)
  • academic degrees (28 percent)

A poor hiring decision can cost up to 30 percent of an employee’s annual salary. Getting it right the first time, based on all the information you can gather, is not only cost effective – it saves you the time and effort of having to rehire that new hire.

Legalese, Not Legal Ease

So why are references so difficult to come by? First, blame all the lawyers: A few decades ago it was common practice to give references, good or bad. But as defamation suits started, many employers stopped saying anything. While lawsuits are few and far between, most employers feel it’s better to err on the safe side and say nothing. Ironically, the same HR professionals who won’t tell you a thing are thwarted by those same practices when looking to hire for their own firm. But the laws and lawyers have created a morass when it comes to what you can or cannot say. Even though the truth is an absolute defense in defamation cases, the cost of vindication can be exorbitant, so mum’s the word.

You catch an employee stealing and fire them. The amount they attempted to take and the fact that they didn’t succeed make you refrain from prosecuting. When the next company calls for a reference check, can you say they were fired for theft? Depending on your state, maybe not! If you chose not to prosecute them, they never had their day in court. They still hold a presumption of innocence and a jury may have acquitted them. You could be defaming their character by saying were let go for theft. Again, mum’s the word.

Additionally, there is no legal obligation to provide references. Unless you have a specific clause in an employee contract or bargaining agreement, references are a potential risk, with no benefit. There are occasional accusations of negligent referrals, in which a company failed to disclose information about an employee who later went on to harm others. But those instances are few and far between. Most companies feel silence is the smarter option.

reference check advice

Hiring Mistakes Can Be Fatal

So you ask yourself, with such limited access to information, why bother even trying to check references?

In a survey of 2,500 companies, CareerBuilder found that 69 percent of employers have changed their mind about a candidate after checking references. More than two-thirds of potentially bad hires were avoided with a few phone calls. Imagine the cost savings!

Even a little information can mean a lot. Just verifying dates and titles can make a huge difference. With almost 40 percent of candidates lying about their job title, it’s well worth confirming that detail.

One of the most difficult days in my HR career was sitting in on a deposition about an unmade reference check. We were asked to attest that a property management company neglected to verify dates and title for an employee they hired. The candidate’s application said he worked for us as a “seasonal police officer” and described that he carried a firearm. Based on that lie, the new company issued him a gun, with which he killed a tenant in a building he was hired to protect.

The employee was convicted and sent to jail. The family of the victim brought a suit against the management company, and of course won. Had the company spent two minutes on a phone call, we would have verified he was a seasonal restaurant worker and nothing more. He would never have been issued firearm under any circumstance. That senseless tragedy could have so easily been avoided.

We know how valuable – even life-saving – reference checks are. Here’s how to conduct a reference check so that you get information that goes beyond title and dates.

  1. Get Permission

First and foremost, make sure you have permission to check. You don’t want to put an applicant’s current job at risk by calling their supervisor and asking for a reference, particularly if the supervisor doesn’t know they’re looking. Make sure the candidate knows you’re checking and you have their permission to call current employers. Try to call current employers last. If the candidate’s other references don’t pan out, there’s no need to put their current job at risk.

  1. Personal Business

If an applicant knows their company issues verification only, ask for personal “business” references: people they’ve worked with/for who would be willing to speak to you. I’ve told many referral checkers that, while our company policy was verification only, they could ask their candidate to recommend a former manager who might speak on their behalf from a personal perspective. If a candidate cannot name one colleague who might be willing, you have to wonder why.

In an age of internet access and proactive networking, most people can find the name of someone with whom they’ve worked. Former managers who no longer work with the company are an invaluable resource that candidates can easily access. Many former colleagues keep in touch with me and have used me as a reference, which I’m happy to provide.

When you contact the personal business associate, explain that you do understand they cannot speak on behalf of the company. Ask if they can give you any insight from their own personal experience working with the candidate. If the named people won’t take or return your call, again, you need to wonder why.

  1. Be Creative (a.k.a. Sneaky)

Your first phone calls are to verify those dates and titles. If those yield contradictory information from what the candidate provides, you’ve saved yourself a lot of time tracking down people willing to talk. But if it checks out, use this opportunity to ask questions about the job – rather than the candidate. What does that title represent? Does that job supervise, work with clients, do coding? Have a list of responsibilities you think could be verified and ask about the job description – not the candidate. Would they be willing to forward a copy of the job description? Knowing that a large percentage of candidates fudge their responsibilities, it could be invaluable to learn that the “Lead Customer Care Representative” title on their application really meant cashier.

Another sneaky question that may work is “Are they eligible for rehire?” Many HR reps will give a knee-jerk response to that question without thinking. It’s worth a shot and could be very revealing.

  1. Share the Work

Ask a candidate for names of people they’ve spoken to (or will at your request) who would give them a reference. You don’t want to talk to their Aunt Sally, you want the names and contact information for people who have first-hand knowledge of their work. Consider it their first assignment. They want the job, you want the references, everybody wins.

If they want the job badly enough and know they can produce names, they will find folks not only willing to talk to you, but whom they’ve put on notice about the potential reference check and who are waiting for your call. Some employers even ask candidates to contact the references and provide a time frame when it would be convenient to call.

Remember to ask for managers, co-workers, even direct reports of the applicant. When you’re hiring a manager, it’s great to talk to former underlings who can tell you about their management style and effectiveness.

  1. Stretching and Selfies

Stretching dates of employment is one of the oldest tricks in the book. When potential hires deliberately omit months on their application (“dates of employment: 2013-2014”), up goes the red flag. Were they employed for almost two years, or was it two months? Date and title verification does work wonders here.

Self-employment is another way to pad your resume. Everything from consulting with the Fortune 500 to running a small dog-walking business is a great way to fill out those employment gaps. If you were the boss, certainly you’ll be giving yourself a glowing recommendation. But we’re going to need an old business card, web address, and the name of some of your clients, just to get more detail.

  1. Trust But Verify

Many candidates ask their instructors or employers for letters of recommendation when they leave their posts: smart planning for their future. But some unscrupulous candidates will take home a stack of company letterhead on their way out and the fiction starts flying. If you receive a letter of recommendation, call the person who signed it to make sure it’s legitimate. You are only asking for a yes/no response, so they should able to answer even if the company policy is dates/titles only. And with almost 30 percent of candidates admitting they lie about their academic degrees, that phone call is critical to make.

  1. The Dead and Departed

All the companies in their history are closed? All their past managers are dead? Their alma mater burned to the ground? Either they are the single most unlucky candidate you’ve ever met, or these are huge red flags. If you can’t get verification on any of the candidate’s past history, or if something looks sketchy, move on.

  1. Network Their Networks

Ask for permission to view and contact any professional recommendations on networking sites, like LinkedIn. Many a candidate will beef up their networking sites before starting a job search, with friends and family lauding their achievements. You can message the recommender and ask if they’ll speak with you by phone or email. Then ask specific, detailed questions to verify they’re authentic business recommendations.

It’s generally not a good idea to ask for social media information – although some employers do. Do you really need to see what they posted on Facebook to make a good hiring decision? Some companies say yes, but beware the risk. If they post something you shouldn’t know, like a pregnancy announcement or their struggles with a sick family member, and you don’t end up hiring them, that knowledge could be a basis for a discrimination claim. Best to steer clear.

grandma's LinkedIn endorsement

  1. Review the Reviews

It’s a bit more time consuming, but if you really can’t get any other information, ask for past performance reviews. Employees have the right to any paperwork included in their personnel file, and evaluations give detailed insight into all aspects of their work. While you probably won’t get anyone to dig into their 10 year-old archives, candidates can easily contact recent employers and ask for copies. They can pick them up or have them forwarded directly to you. Again, verify they haven’t been doctored. Even title/date companies should be willing to verify that a copy of the evaluation you’ve received is legitimate.

  1. Just One More Name

While no one is going to ask their worst nightmare client or loathed ex-manager or colleague for a recommendation, you can get beyond the “rave review” part even with good references if you ask the right questions. File this one under “Sneaky HR Manager”: I’ve been known to tell the glowing recommender that I really just need one more contact before I can make the hire – could they suggest anyone I can call? If they’re hard-pressed to offer a name, it might be a red flag.

With so many people self-admittedly padding their resumes, it’s crucial to do your due diligence and try to check references every which way you can. It’s a challenge, but the more people you speak with, the more opportunity for insight – and the better your chances of a long-term hire. Why hire someone else’s problem?