FQHC Hiring Tips: The Do's and Don'ts of Reference Checks

In my last post, we discussed the need for organizations to have properly written policies and procedures regarding the provision of reference information on former employees to protect the employer, the former employee, and other employers from potential litigation. In this post, I will discuss the business of obtaining and providing references and how to avoid putting your organization at risk.

Why this is important: Employers should remember that references and other types of background checks are critical, and in the FQHC environment reference and background check results are a required part of an employee personnel file. As such, both giving and obtaining necessary reference information to prevent problems due to negligent hiring and to ensure that an employee is a good fit for a position mandates that this effort be taken very seriously and be conducted at an appropriate level based upon the position being filled.

Before we begin, a note on background checks: While not specific to our discussion on reference checks, certain levels of background investigations and credit checks require another level of notification to the applicant about the type of investigation being completed. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires employers to provide applicants with written notification when they are using another agency to conduct a background investigation. Caution is advised regarding blanket credit checks unless they are specific to the position requirements. Applicants must be advised if they were not selected as a result of any information obtained through such investigations.

Reference Check Process - Obtaining Information about a Candidate from Former Employers:

  • Request that the applicant provide a signed release that grants both the request and release of information without fear of liability. The release provides former employers with a level of comfort that might aid the hiring organization in assessing the candidate.

  • I recommend that a release form be completed specific to each former employer so that it can be sent directly to them (if requested) in an effort to obtain information as this allows them to maintain that release in their files as well.

  • Despite the release, remember that name, rank, and serial number policies exist and employers may not violate the policy, but the effort still provides the hiring employer with the documentation to demonstrate that they conducted the appropriate level of reference verification.

  • Contact ALL of the references provided – both personal and professional. Just one is NOT enough.

  • Speak directly with the reference as you may be able to gain valuable information from their demeanor over the phone that you will not gain from other sources such as mailed, emailed or faxed forms.

  • Limit your questions to only job-related ones to minimize the chance of a discrimination claim. For personal references you might ask questions about how they handled a disagreement or other behavioral questions that might still apply to the workplace.

  • Begin with basic questions to establish a rapport with the former employer or personal reference and work into more sensitive questions such as their reason for leaving or rehire status.

  • If the former employer has no policy preventing you from speaking to the employee's direct supervisor, be sure to do so, as they have working knowledge they may be willing to share.

  • Just like an interview, ask open ended questions that allow the former employer or personal reference the ability to provide more detailed information.

Reference Check Process - Providing Information about a Candidate to Potential Employers:

  • Develop a policy pertaining to release of information on former employees and always follow that policy. If a policy allows for the release of a fair assessment, obtain a written release from the employee. I recommend obtaining such a release from departing employees for future references during the exit interview. If you don’t have a release on file, request one.

  • Document all inquiries and maintain that information.

  • Refer to the employee personnel file. Do not go off memory or the opinions of others. Remember, your information should be based on documented personnel file facts, not rumor or opinion.

  • Remember to reference your state laws as some states have specific laws that require certain levels of disclosure. These were enacted to protect patients and other employees from harm.

Documentation and Training are Key - 5 Reference Tips for Both Former and Hiring Employers:

  1. Obtain the appropriate signed release.

  2. Keep your questions/answers and documentation specific to the position the applicant applied for or performed when employed with your organization.

  3. Documentation should be maintained by both the former employer regarding information provided and by the hiring employer to demonstrate the information obtained.

  4. Have policies and procedures in place to address the handling of reference checks from both the perspectives of the former and the hiring employer.

  5. Train staff on the policies and procedures and make certain all employees understand who holds the responsibility for verification of references and for release of information regarding a former employee.

In my next post, I will give you some tips on finding the candidate who is the best match for your organization.

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