Conducting reference, credit checks as part of hiring

Things to keep in mind to ensure the job search ends with the right candidate

The opportunity to check the references of a candidate who has applied for a new position should not be missed in the rush to fill the vacancy.

Checking references before hiring will help organizations:

•confirm the information provided by the candidate on an application form;

•check the character of the candidate with her former employer; and

•determine whether the candidate has the ability to perform the duties required for the job.

Here are a number of tips to keep in mind:

Ensure the application form asks the candidate for permission to contact her previous employers. This can be included, along with the other items mentioned below, at the bottom of the form just above the signature and date line. It is particularly important to have this permission if the company plans on contacting the current employer as the reference check. This contact may be the current employer’s first notification the employee is looking for a job somewhere else. If contact with the current employer will be delicate, ask the candidate whether there is someone with her current employer who can provide a reference without jeopardizing her future, such as a confidant or an employee who has recently left the employer. A conditional offer can also be made to the candidate pending a positive reference from her current employer.

The application form should require the candidate to agree that all of the information provided in the form is true and, if proven otherwise, the candidate agrees she will not be offered the position or will be dismissed for just cause if the false information is discovered after she is hired.

If a serious discrepancy is found while checking information on the application form, the candidate should not be hired without further investigation and an explanation.

Be wary if a previous employer is not able to give any specific or positive information about the candidate or if the contact is trying to avoid answering questions about the candidate.

Check with at least two previous employers, and don’t limit the checking to the references provided by the candidate. These references are not always helpful. Try to achieve a balanced response.

Try to call the contact at the previous employer during a quiet time of the day, either early in the morning or late in the afternoon. In order to gain the most benefit from a reference check with a previous employer, introduce yourself and tell the contact you are calling to verify information provided by the candidate on an application form. Tell the previous employer the information provided will be held in confidence. This will allow the previous employer to be candid.

Attempt to confirm the following: dates of employment; positions held; and latest salary. Ask about the following: the candidate's reliability; attendance record; working relationship with co-workers, management and customers; strengths and weaknesses; assessment of work habits; judgment, initiative and achievements; why the employee left; and whether the supervisor would rehire the candidate.

Do not raise issues relating to any of the prohibited grounds of human rights legislation. Developing standardized reference check questions will help ensure all employees are treated the same, and that no prohibited information is sought.

In some instances, employers may want to check the candidate's credit history. This may be relevant if the employee will be handling money. Ontario’s Consumer Reporting Act provides an employment candidate must be notified, in writing, that an employer is going to conduct a credit check before the check is done. The request for authorization to conduct a credit search, and the notification an employer intends to do so, should be conditions of the candidate's application for employment. If requested by the candidate, the employer must notify her of the name and address of the credit reporting agency supplying the report.

The notice and authorization provided to the prospective employee that a credit search will be done must be in bold type or underlined and in at least 10-point-size print. If the candidate is not hired, wholly or in part, as a result of the credit check, the employer is obliged to inform the candidate of the reasons for the refusal of employment. The employer must also tell the candidate she has the right to be provided with the name and address of the credit reporting agency that supplied the credit check which ultimately led to the refusal to hire the candidate and the candidate must be told they have 60 days to make a request for such information. Failure to comply with the provisions of the act may result in a fine of up to $25,000 for an individual and a up to $100,000 for a corporation.

Organizations should introduce a policy that prohibits supervisors from hiring a new employee without completing at least two reference checks. One way to ensure references are checked is to make it impossible for the payroll department to process a new employee file or number without having confirmation on the references.

Peter Israel is the head of Goodman and Carr LLP’s Human Resource Management Group. He can be reached at (416) 595-2323.

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