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The Art of Reference Checking -- To Whom Do You Want to Make Your Calls?

The answer to this question depends on how important employers think reference checking is in the first place. If you believe reference checking is nothing more than verifying information on a job application or resume, then pretty much anybody can do it: a secretary, the kid from the mail room or one of those outfits that makes a living verifying stuff for a few bucks a pop.

On the other hand, if you believe a thorough evaluation of past performance is an integral part of the employment process, then please keep reading. Even those employers who appreciate the value of thorough reference checking sometimes assign the task to employees who either aren't trained to do it or to already overworked recruiters likely to rush through the exercise just to get it done.
Some professions tend to do a better job checking references than others. Public education, in my experience, is at the bottom of the heap, followed by healthcare and banking. Every few weeks, it seems another story hits the news about a teacher accused of inappropriate behavior with a student. The alleged perpetrator usually has a history of such misconduct, prompting public dismay over how this person passed muster with school officials. Incredibly, careful reference checking of those entrusted to teach and care for our children is seldom done. If it is done at all, the job is typically given to an overworked secretary untrained in the art of reference checking.

One recent example shows how easy it is for bad teachers to stay in circulation. A teacher was terminated for having an inappropriate relationship with a student and then applied for a similar position with a school in another part of the same state. The superintendent's secretary called the previous school to verify employment, which was confirmed. The secretary then asked an obscure question about the teacher's job performance, was given an equally obscure response and the call was concluded. Two of the most fundamental and most obvious questions: "Why did this teacher leave?" and "Would you hire this teacher again?" were never asked. The newly hired teacher was arrested again during the same school year for molesting a student, and the new school was sued for negligent hiring.

School administrators are also notorious for giving good references for bad teachers just to get rid of them, with the net effect being the bad apples just keep getting passed from one school to the next. What can be done about it?

Regardless of the type of job being filled, people assigned the task of checking references need to be trained to do it effectively and lawfully. The challenge is for reference checkers to learn how to elicit information about a candidate's past performance without asking improper questions. That requires a thorough understanding of laws pertaining to discrimination, invasion of privacy and negligent hiring, as well as the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

The other option is to outsource reference checking to firms that specialize in the service. Outsourcing can offer several advantages, not the least of which is objectivity. Acting as an agent for the prospective employer, a reference-checking service has no stake in a candidate's hiring. Another advantage is the savings in time, money and effort required to carefully check references. It's also useful for a prospective employer to have an independent check against which to compare results from interviews and other screening tools.

The point, of course, is if the employer views reference checking as worth doing at all, then it is worth doing well. And to do it well requires careful training in the art of reference checking.

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