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Cracking the Ex-Files

September 2, 2003
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Dave Dibble heard a long and uncomfortable pause on the other end of the phone line. He understood the hesitation. He was, after all, seeking a vital piece of information from someone he had never met. But it wasn’t as if Dibble, director of human resources for Presidion Corp., one of the nation’s largest professional employer organizations, was a private eye or investigative reporter chasing down a controversial story. He merely wanted a reference for a job applicant named Ben who was seeking a mid-level accounting position. From the hemming and hawing, Dibble could tell that Ben’s former supervisor wished he hadn’t picked up the phone.

    "I’m really sorry," the supervisor said. "I can’t tell you anything more than his job title and dates of employment. Company policy."

    Dibble said he understood, and verified that Ben had been a staff accountant from May 1999 to June 2003. "Before I let you go," Dibble said, "do you mind if I ask just one more thing?"

    "Yeah, okay," the supervisor said.

    "This is an important job, and it would really help me out if you could just give me an inkling of Ben’s work performance. If you were going to rate what kind of employee he was on a scale of 1 to 10, would you give him an 8, 9 or 10?"

    The supervisor thought for a flash and said, "No question. He was a 9." Without prompting, he gave a couple of reasons for the high rating. And within a few minutes, he and Dibble were gabbing like old pals.

    When people are comfortable, they talk.

    Recalling the conversation, Dibble says that he rarely encounters resistance when he asks references to rate job candidates on a 1-to-10 scale. "References are comfortable because I’ve defined the playing field and, after all, it’s just a number."

    Most hiring managers have taken a spin on the reference-checking merry-go-round. In the morning, they might sidestep a call from someone wanting a reference on a former employee by saying that company lawyers prevent them from commenting on job performance. Then, in the afternoon, the same manager will be the one trying to break through the "stone wall of silence" to check the references of a prospective employee.

    Given the high level of resistance, probing into the background of applicants may seem like an inefficient use of time. But as Lester Rosen, president of Employment Screening Resources in Novato, California, points out, a thorough background check is one of the best ways to catch falsified credentials and avoid the "parade of horribles" of a bad hire--poor productivity, employee theft and workplace violence.

Expect Success
    Many managers, knowing their own policy against giving references, simply won’t make such calls when they are hiring. Or, at best, they expect roadblocks, which often turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. "If you start off saying to a reference, ‘Listen, I know you’re not supposed to tell me this,’ then he’s not going to tell you," Dibble says.

    He and other experts say they get into the proper mind-set by remembering all the good that comes from background checking. Just letting prospective employees know that you check references discourages applicants with criminal backgrounds or falsified credentials. Besides, if a former employer will verify nothing more than dates of employment, even that can reveal gaps in work history that might indicate a criminal record or other problems.

    The most useful references normally come from bypassing the human resources department and going straight to the applicant’s former supervisor. But the way in which that supervisor is approached could have a big influence on whether he opens up. "If you sound like you’re reading a script and being mechanical, they’ll respond in the same way," says Kevin Klimas, president of Clarifacts, a pre-employment screening service based in Phoenix. "You need to loosen up, be friendly and plead to human nature."

    Before calling a former employer, determine what information is directly relevant to the position being filled and stick to appropriate questions. "People basically want to do what’s right," says Chuck Pappalardo, managing director of Trilogy Venture Search, an executive recruitment firm in San Francisco. "If you ask good questions and demonstrate that you are being smart about uncovering information for the benefit of the applicant and the hiring company, you are more likely to get assistance." Don’t push references past their willingness to help, though. "I’ll say, ‘I don’t want to offend you or make you uncomfortable, but you would want me to be just as diligent if I were doing the search for you," Pappalardo says. "So I ask them to help me out to the level they are comfortable."

    Oftentimes, a reference will be put at ease with an appeal for objective information such as a 1-to-10 scale or a description of the duties of the applicant’s former job. "I always ask if they would hire the employee again," says Scott Testa, COO for Mindbridge Software, a technology firm in Philadelphia. "Most people will tell you that. I listen not just to what they say, but how they say it. Do they hesitate? Backpedal?"

    One approach that has reached almost mythic status in reference-checking circles is to politely acknowledge the reasons for the reference’s reluctance: "I know you can’t say anything, but if you could, what would you say?" Usually the reference will laugh and start talking.

    The reason why many firms hesitate to give any references can be summed up in four words: fear of defamation lawsuits. "Companies are scared silly by the thought of being sued by former employees," Klimas says. The safest strategy, they figure, is to give no references, and sometimes to not even verify employment information. Klimas uses the law and fear of litigation to his advantage. "Owners and managers at many companies believe it’s against the law to provide any information about their former employees," he says. However, most states have passed laws protecting employers from civil liability when providing employment verification if the information is truthful and without malice. If the reference is still on the fence, Klimas will fax them a copy of the law.

    Attorney Barry Kellman of the Los Angeles law firm Greenberg Glusker notes that there is "no overarching law requiring companies to give information about former employees to reference checkers." However, Klimas sometimes mentions that not providing information that may have a negative impact on the new employer can expose them to a lawsuit. Say, for example, a supervisor remains silent about a former employee having several violent outbursts. Withholding that information could make the former supervisor and his company liable for similar episodes at the employee’s future workplace. Another effective way to gain cooperation is to ask the job applicant to sign a waiver, giving his former company permission to talk about him.

References from references
    A reference who balks at talking about the job applicant will often be willing to recommend others who might do so, either inside or outside the company. Experts say that a manager who is no longer employed by the company will almost always be more open.

    If the supervisor still remains mute, ask the applicant to provide names of customers she dealt with or a former research partner, says Douglas Hahn, president of HRPlus, a background-checking firm in Evergreen, Colorado. Professional references can provide insight into the candidate’s character, work habits and performance. At the same time, hiring managers should evaluate references’ remarks carefully, especially when they are not from the immediate supervisor. Once, Pappalardo was checking the background of an applicant for a position as vice president of sales at a technology start-up. This was a critical job, so the firm’s owner wanted a thorough review. However, the applicant’s past company had gone bankrupt, and Pappalardo didn’t know how to reach the candidate’s previous supervisor. By networking, he found a colleague of the applicant who noted, off the record, "I personally liked him, but a lot of people had problems with him."

    Pappalardo didn’t leave it there, however. By using the "Who else should I talk to" technique, he finally tracked down the applicant’s former supervisor, who quickly disputed the colleague’s negative remarks. "The supervisor said the applicant was his star performer and the other guy disliked him because he always beat him out for accounts," Pappalardo relates. "When someone gives you an opinion, you have to figure out where they are coming from. Any individual reference may or may not mean anything. What you’re looking for is a trend."

Finding other sources
    Some screeners prefer not to rely solely on references supplied by the candidate, especially for high-level positions. They use commercial databases to comb public records for undisclosed information, such as past employers. Litigation records might indicate that the applicant had a history of legal issues with past employers and coworkers. An online search engine like Google or Yahoo might bring up press releases or news reports that show an applicant was once affiliated with a company that doesn’t appear on her résumé.

    Tim Mohr, an associate at BDO Seidman, LLP, a national professional services firm in New York, used that technique to check the background of a high-level executive moving into the insurance industry. "We looked through FCC filings and press releases and found that he had been affiliated with a number of companies, which he didn’t mention on his résumé, that all went bankrupt," Mohr says. "He would have had authority to pay out claims in the new job, and the insurance company didn’t want to give access to money to someone with a history of failed businesses."

    Screeners say that it’s prudent to let the candidate know when you are checking references and have her sign the appropriate consent forms. If the applicant thinks you’re going behind her back, she may become upset or even decline the job.

    Digging deep, Pappalardo says, improves the odds that you will find someone who will talk about the candidate. "And if everyone refuses to give more than name, rank and serial number, it could indicate a problem with the person’s past. If the individual has done a good job, you will always get a thumbs-up signal, even if it’s off the record."

Workforce Management, September 2003, pp. 50-54 -- Subscribe Now!

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