A Reference Check Double Standard

Recently, I was asked how I felt about requiring applicants, whom an organization wishes to hire, to provide three individual references.  These three would be asked to vouch for the applicant’s work-related performance.  This was asked in light of the fact that this hiring organization itself has a reference neutral policy, i.e., they only provide dates of employment, position title, and, if the former employee authorizes it, his/her salary.

Isn’t this a double standard?

Reasons to Conduct

According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM’s) “Conducting Background Investigations and Reference Checks”, October 4, 2016, “There are many reasons employers conduct appropriate levels of screening for prospective employees through a background investigation, a reference check or both.

Avoiding injury

A major reason to conduct background and reference checks is to avoid harm or legal liability of various types to the employer or to others—for example, harm to:

  • The employer’s business through financial loss or image and reputational issues.
  • Other employees by sexual harassment or workplace violence.
  • The organization’s customers by, for example, sexual assault on business premises.
  • The public by negligent driving.

Litigation defense

Defense of legal claims—negligent hiring and retention, as examples—is a compelling reason to conduct in-depth criminal records searches of job applicants. A multilevel jurisdictional criminal records search can be strong evidence that the employer exercised due care in hiring.

Maximize productivity

Hire the best and reject the rest, the saying goes. Typically, past performance is a strong indicator of future performance and can reveal an individual’s professionalism, productivity, job skills and interpersonal communication abilities. A reference check helps distinguish between a true high flier and a mere poser.

In addition to verifying past employment (dates of employment, job titles, duties performed, circumstances of separation, and compensation), you want to determine qualifications, and verify authenticity of any reference letters received.


A variety of developments and trends in society at large are reflected in trends associated with background screening and reference checks.

Frequency of use

Surveys conducted by SHRM and other organizations reveal a trend toward greater use of background investigations and reference checks in employment. This trend is driven by several factors, including:

  • Security issues in a post-Sept. 11 world.
  • New legislation, particularly in the area of immigration law enforcement.
  • Technological advances that make background investigations faster and more economical.
  • Increased awareness of the various risks of failure to conduct adequate background checks.
  • A rise in the willingness of applicants to misrepresent their credentials.
  • Increasing competition among applicants due to the dearth of new jobs in a post-recession environment.

Types of findings

According to a 2014 CareerBuilder.com survey,1 industries that appear to encounter fraudulent resumes most often are:

  • Financial services (73%).
  • Leisure & Hospitality (71%).
  • Health Care (63%).
  • Information technology (63%).
  • Retail (59%).

In a 2015 SterlingBackcheck report,2 the manufacturing industry lead with the highest criminal record hit ratios.”

So, what should an organization do?

Employment attorneys will advise that a reference neutral policy is the safest way for an organization to go in terms of risk mitigation.

Whether or not you are part of an organization which requires employment-related references as part of your hiring process, we recommend that you begin or continue this practice as part of your due diligence.  You may be questioned as to why you should expect other organizations to do what you, yourself, are unwilling to do.  The short answer is that while this is a double standard, other organizations can always decline to provide performance-related references to your organization too.


the HRmeister


1CareerBuilder.com. (2014, Aug. 7). Fifty-eight Percent of Employers Have Caught a Lie on a Resume, According to a New CareerBuilder Survey [press release]. Retrieved from http://www.careerbuilder.com/share/aboutus/pressreleasesdetail.aspx?sd=8%2F7%2F2014&id=pr837&ed=12%2F31%2F2014

2SterlingBackcheck. (2015). Background Screening Trends & Best Practices Report 2015-2016. Retrieved from http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:54Nb19JJ4GMJ:www.sterlingtalentsolutions.com/~/media/Sterling%2520Backcheck/PDFs/reports/SterlingBackcheck_Benchmarking_Report_2015.ashx+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us