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Dear diary: A few comments about reference checks

December 26, 2014
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My career in human resources covers too many years to accurately remember. Over that time there were a number of interesting comments I heard about people and situations that I just had to remember, so I kept a bit of a diary.

After a recent review, it seemed I should share them with others since they might find them as entertaining as they were for me. The statements are real and the people who said them are real, though a bit paraphrased to protect the innocent. I also absolutely disavow any legal obligation about their appropriateness for any of you individual practitioners.

In this day and age, it is extremely difficult to get anyone to open up about any former employee. We have lawyers telling us not to say a word or we could start a nuclear war if we don’t heed their advice. Although we love to tell about how wonderful a person is, we struggle to discuss anything negative. Most of us don’t want to be dishonest, so when we try to describe someone in a positive light when it is a negative situation, once in a while something pops out of our mouth that requires the listener to read between the lines. Or sometimes the framing of the negative, guarded with a positive trait, doesn’t come out just right.

Let’s say you have been assigned HR manager for a day and are obtaining reference checks for a few perspective employees. Let’s pretend you have actually gotten a hold of someone willing to say more than “they worked here and they don’t work here anymore.”

Question: Can you tell me in your opinion how qualified Jack is for a position as an accountant?

Answer: “We thought he was a very nice person but the accounting position held at our company was not compatible with his qualifications.”

This is a tactful way of saying Jack should find a new skill set.

Question: Does Betsy have sufficient skills to operate common computer applications such as email or word processing?

Answer: “Betsy has a nice personality and gets some aspects of modern communication but she is technologically repressed.”

I’ll bet she can text and use Facebook.

Question: Does George have any discipline in his record?

Answer: “He was a two-file employee.”

Hire at your own peril.

Question: How capable is Reginald in projecting knowledge of the product in your company?

Answer: “He is a man of hubris — very strong, like a rock trying to absorb water.”

In other words, he may be a B.S. artist with very little understanding of anything but has a high opinion of his accomplishments.

Question: Can Sally multi-task?

Answer: “She works very hard, but I would describe her as a one-egg worker.”

Sally would likely accomplish very little of the task at hand; she will move a basket of a dozen eggs across a room one egg at a time.

Question: Would you say Ralph has a strong motivation to succeed in a career?

Answer: “He is a complicated individual with lofty goals and no aspirations to accomplish them.”

Just give me the money, and you want me to do what and when?

Question: Is Alberta energetic?

Answer: “She demonstrated an excellent ability to conserve energy.”

Yawn, when’s lunch?

Question: If you could say one final thing that describes Oliver, what would that be?

Answer: “He has an exaggerated sense of propriety.”

He should run for President.

Question: Is Eldora eligible for rehire?

Answer: “She is eligible for reapplication with our company.”

That in a nutshell is all you need to know.

Do these statements apply to anyone in your organization? I’ll be willing to bet more than one describes someone you know but wish you didn’t.

Here are some useful hints on reference checks:

1. Have the candidate sign a release allowing you to obtain information and protect those providing information from adverse action from the candidate.
2. Although it is difficult to obtain any information from past employers, at least try and find out if they are eligible for rehire.
3. For any position involved in driving for the organization, obtain a motor vehicle driving record.
4. Obtain a criminal record check, which is available from the state.
5. Obtaining a credit report has a plethora of rules under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, but if you need this, go through the proper procedures.
6. In Michigan, information released and obtained is generally governed by the Bullard-Plawecki Right to Know Act. Be familiar with it.

Some occupations, such as truck driving and working in schools, have different background reference checking requirements. If you are responsible for jobs in these types of areas, review the requirements carefully. Before you release any information other than dates of employment to another party, make sure you have a release signed by the former employee. Be careful: Some ex-employees will have a friend or relative pretend to be a potential employer, just to see what you are saying.

Jim Kohmescher is a senior consultant at P3HR Consulting & Services.

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