Turf Magazine - April, 2014

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Employment References Still a Useful Tool

By Mel Kleiman

Too many business owners and managers have given up trying to get references on job applicants because most employers will only report dates of employment and starting and ending wages.

This information clampdown is an understandable, but misguided, response to the number of lawsuits filed - and won - by former employees who went to court to dispute what they believed were unfair, unfavorable references.

Taking a pass on verifying references, however, is not worth the risk involved. A pre-employment screening firm in Colorado reports that one of every 10 job applicants they processed last year had a criminal record not noted on their employment applications. They also found that one in three applicants misrepresented themselves and one in four provided false educational or credential records.

When you rely only on information provided by the applicant, you risk everything from hiring a dishonest person to a costly, negligent hiring lawsuit. On the other hand, if you at least try to get references and someone withholds unfavorable information, it will minimize your liability should anything untoward happen. Just be certain to document your conversations and keep these records.

While this is a good defensive strategy, it's better yet to get the information you need to make a sound hiring decision. It can be done.

First, if it's not already a part of your employment application, get written authorization from all applicants to check their references and run background checks. This "hold harmless" document frees you of any liability that may result from the process.

Then, realizing that all job applicants show up for interviews prepared to tell you exactly what they think you want to hear, you need to change that mindset by telling them up front that you expect the truth. Position the applicant to tell you the truth by saying, "I'm going to be very open and honest with you about the job and our company and I hope you will be open and honest with me about yourself. It doesn't matter if you've ever resigned, been fired or had difficulty with a former employer. As long as you tell me about it, we can take it under consideration. But, if you don't tell me, and we find out about it when we do our reference and background checks, I can't hire you. Do you understand what it is I want?"

Then, wait for the applicant to say something such as, "Of course, you want the truth." Once you get this acknowledgement, approximately 90 percent of applicants will be more honest than they intended.

There's also a simple tool you can add to your hiring process that will help you get the references you need. A reference verification form requests basic information about each former job and employer. A separate form is completed for each of the applicant's last three jobs or the last five years of work. For each job, applicants are asked to rate themselves as they think their previous supervisors would on job performance measures such as initiative, dependability, productivity, effort, cooperation and overall performance.

When you're ready to do the reference check, you simply fax or email the completed form to the reference with a notation that you'll be calling to discuss the information. When the reference sees you have provided the applicant's release in writing as well how the applicant rated his or her job performance, you'll find you get a great deal more cooperation.

Experience shows that employers get useful responses and reliable answers more than 95 percent of the time when they use this tool. The technique is effective because you're asking references only to confirm the applicant's self-ratings. You are not asking them to divulge information.

Whatever you do, don't give up or pass on trying to get reference information. If you don't get any cooperation and hire the person, document your inability to get meaningful references and keep the records in the employee's file.

Take a moment to consider your own policy on references, too. As employers, we owe it to our employees and the clients we serve to hire decent, ethical, safety-conscious employees. One of the only ways to do this is by sharing information with one another about former employees.

To this end, when you hire new people ask them to sign a release that, should they leave, allows you to give references when asked. (For sample copies of the forms mentioned in this article, email lhamel@melkleiman.com with "RRF & RVF" in the subject line.)

If all employers would act on these recommendations, the job of putting the right people in the right jobs would be that much easier for us all.

Mel Kleiman, CSP, is a consultant, author and speaker on strategies for hiring and retaining the best employees. He is president of Humetrics, a leading developer of systems, training, processes and tools for recruiting, selection and retention of the best hourly workforce. Contact him at mkleiman@humetrics.com.