Labour Bulletin | 12 April, 2011 | Hot Topics:
Last week I was writing an update for the Practical Guide to Human Resources Management on the importance and need for pre-employment screening – and it got me thinking. (You may have noticed from my previous bulletins that I do a lot of thinking)! Pre-employment screening, after all, is a serious topic, so I thought I’d share my ruminations with you.
Many managers shy away from taking references from previous employers or are reluctant to give a reference on a former employee. Litigation stories and myths abound out there!
There are many screenings you can do
Let’s start with looking at what information you can obtain about a candidate. Amongst other things, you can check on your applicant’s:
• Education and qualifications
• Memberships and professional affiliations
• Business interests
• Previous employment dates
• Credit and criminal history, etc.
Many of you will be familiar with the list and may well have carried out these types of checks either directly or through verification agencies. So, what is all the fuss about then, you might ask? Well, besides the list above, there are other pre-employment screenings that can be done that are a little less clear and a lot more controversial.
• Medical assessments
• Psychometric assessments
• Previous employer references
• Character references
Get to know more about prospective employees
I don’t think that any of you would dispute that all these checks could provide you with valuable information about a prospective employee, but it’s this second group that often gets the debates going. I think that it’s largely because, unlike the first (very factual) group of checks, the second group of screening options relies largely on interpretation and subjective assessment.
Now, I am not doubting the professional ability of a bona-fide medical practitioner to do accurate medical assessments, nor the ability of a registered psychology professional to make an accurate assessment of the acumen of another person (especially as I fall into this latter group), but the analysis and interpretation of that information as it pertains to the candidate’s functioning in your workplace is still speculation. However, in these two instances it is highly educated and professionally qualified speculations – could we really ask for anything more?
Although no professional, regardless of his qualifications and experience can ever predict with 100% certainty how your candidate will perform or behave in your workplace, at least he can make highly educated interpretations of the data collected from the candidate.
Don't shy away from these checks
Unfortunately, this is not true for the last two checks above: previous employer and character references. They are usually highly subjective and most often horrendously biased – and I will hazard a guess that they are possibly the lone culprits for the bad rap that reference checking has been burdened with.
You and I both know that our draconian labour legislation doesn’t tolerate subjective, unsubstantiated opinions of employees (or prospective employees – the law regards both categories as one and the same) so I fully understand why some of you shy away from contacting previous employers. But there are undoubtedly good and solid benefits to doing pre-employment screening (including contacting previous employers) and any HR manager worth their salt should be doing them religiously before they hire any new staff.
Okay, so I didn’t mean to scare you with that suggestion – and you can stop shivering in fear – because it’s really quite simple to get meaningful, factual information about an applicant’s previous performance and stay well within the boundaries of the law. Yes it is – really!
Ask the right questions
The key is to thoroughly plan what it is you want to know, how you can get that information and who you should be getting the information from. Simple!
Let’s look into that a little further:
What you want to know is whether the prospective employee has:
a) Been truthful about her employment (including dates of employment, remuneration, positions held and responsibilities, etc.)
b) Accurately depicted her competencies (including day-to-day duties, project implementations, expertise, achievements and the like)
c) Omitted any business or job-related information that may be pertinent to your decision making regarding her suitability for the position you are recruiting for – and your organisation as a whole – irrespective of whether such omissions reflect positively or negatively on her.
How you can get that information is by taking references from more than one previous employer and even taking more than one reference from within the same company. Telephone calls work best but a successful interaction is largely dependent on your skills as a communicator. Keep in mind that many employers are hesitant to give references in case they fall victim to an unfair discrimination allegation. You can go a long way to allaying these fears by specifically stating, upfront in the conversation, that you are just looking for the facts rather than a personal opinion and back that up with a pre-prepared (short) list of key facts that need to be verified and a couple of pertinent, job-related questions that, along with relevant examples, will provide more of an historical record of performance rather than mere speculation.
Who you should be getting the references from depends on what you have to verify and who your applicant reported to at their previous workplaces. You may need to speak to more than one person and may, for example, speak to HR or payroll to verify employment dates, positions held and salary information and thereafter speak to the reporting manager(s) to probe performance history. Don’t get a reference from just anyone who may answer the phone. You need to speak to someone who can provide you with direct experience of the candidate without hearsay or conjecture. You will need to get concrete performance examples to back up the manager’s assessment, so it doesn’t help to speak to someone who didn’t manage your candidate directly.
Pre-employment screening is very doable and relatively risk-free
I generally don’t bother with getting personal character references, mostly because they are highly subjective and totally biased. Realistically speaking, the candidate is unlikely to give you the contact details of someone who is not going to sing their praises as a nearly-perfect human being!
Actually, now that I think about it, looking at pre-employment screening this way makes all the fuss seem like a storm in a teacup. Not only is pre-employment screening a very important part of the recruitment process, it is also very doable and if done properly, relatively risk-free. If you stick to the facts, it is really simple.
Oh, yes. I just thought of something else. Remember to document everything. But you probably thought of that already...
Until next time...
Editor-in-chief - Practical Guide to Human Resources Management
P.S. The latest update of the Practical Guide to Human Resources Management has all the tips, practical examples, checklists and step-by-step instructions on how to conduct pre-employment screening. If you are a subscriber, you will receive your update in the post soon.
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Labour Bulletin Editor
The Labour Bulletin team speaks to subscribers every week on landmark labour events and offer valuable and practical information from the Handbook, from questions and answers and from our experts that subscribers can use now to benefit their business.