Most businesses know that they should check references for their applicants 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 you are on the receiving end of such inquiries we would recommend that you 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 usually 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. Be persistent, even if advised that it is not their policy to provide further information.
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 last position held 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 answering 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.
If the prior employer is still reticent to respond, you might want to contact your candidate and ask if they can provide you with an additional reference. Perhaps you’ll have better luck the next time. But, if not, do not stop doing reference checks even if you get no information as employers have legal obligations to at least check.