“Reference Checks” or “Background Investigation”…How to Choose Wisely

We frequently get asked:  “Do you do reference checks?” or “How do you do reference checks?”

This is going to be a very short answer to what can be a complicated question. First we have to ask ourselves, what is it we are really checking?  Well, the best true indicator of future performance is past performance. So, obviously, we want to look at the potential hire’s work ethic, communication style, motivation and how well the prospect plays in the sandbox with others – but wait, there is more.

Depending upon the sensitivity of the particular position you seek to fill, you must also be concerned with honesty and security.  If someone has access to your financial accounts or will be working with vulnerable people, such as children, the elderly or the disabled, you need to look much deeper. There are even published federal guidelines describing the level of effort that should be performed under these circumstances.

The first step in the process is that we need to change our thinking perspective. Using the term “reference” check is the incorrect frame of mind.  The proper frame of mind is “background investigation.” You are not just talking to people but you are looking at the resume, application and documentation searching for inconsistencies and unexplained gaps in work history. Bad employment or life experiences are covered up in resumes by misrepresenting the time frames worked for particular employers. As an example, I was recently retained as an expert in a case where an embezzling employee covered up his stint in state prison. The ultimate consequences were serious and dramatic.

So, who do you talk to?  Well, you don’t waste time talking to “personal” references. Even Charles Manson could produce a good personal reference. Do you talk to the HR departments of past employers? Uh – No. Usually HR has been instructed by risk-adverse legal types to give you the absolute minimum – name, position and time served.  So, to my HR friends, yes, I intentionally bypass you! You do want to talk to the prospect’s first line supervisors over the last 3-5 years.  For a more sensitive position you would go farther back in time.  You get the name and phone number of the past supervisors from the prospective employee and talk to them directly.

Once you have done your background investigation with respect to the prospect’s work history you should check the candidate’s criminal history or court history.  We are looking for issues of moral turpitude or instances of past violence.  Again, how far back you look depends upon the sensitivity of the position. If you use a private database that maintains criminal history information you need to obtain the prospect’s permission and make the results available if requested. It should be noted that most of these database histories only go back seven years and operate within the boundaries of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).  For sensitive positions this is too short of a time frame and other methods should be used. Ultimately the most reliable method of checking criminal history on a nationwide basis is through fingerprint submittals to the State and/or federal NCIC. However, even the federal NCIC database is incomplete because it relies on submittals from local law enforcement and court entities which are not always diligent in doing so.

I recommend a background investigation for all sensitive positions.  Using someone that knows how to look, where to look, and how to properly interpret the information gathered is of key importance and ultimately saves time and energy.  Could we help you in doing a background investigation? We’d love to – and also, in the process, to show you how it’s done, if that’s what you’d like.

©Richard Birdsall, J.D. is a Senior Associate at The Growth Company, Inc. You can follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter. For more information on reference checks and/or background investigations contact Richard Birdsall at Rick@thegrowthcompany.com or 907-276-4769.

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2 Comments on ““Reference Checks” or “Background Investigation”…How to Choose Wisely

  1. When do you do this background investigation? We typically wait until we have decided this is the person we are going to give an offer to. Then we check past employeers before we send the offer. We don’t actually check their criminal background until they have accepted our offer. If the criminal comes back bad, our offer gives us the right to recind. Do you check everyone background or only the ones you hire?

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  2. You are doing it exactly the right way. One exception might be a situation when you have two very comparative applicants and the decision is a tough choice. Doing the background on both could be the tie breaker.

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