Reference Checks

By John Patterson with Charles Tremper and Pam Rypkema
From Staff Screening Tool Kit, Nonprofit Risk Management Center, 1994

...When you contact an applicant's personal references, remember that the applicant selected them for the positive impression he or she thought they would give. Nonetheless, take the task seriously. References sometimes reveal critical information about applicants.

You should verify the nature of the relationship between the applicant and personal reference and the length of time they have known each other. You may be able to increase the objectivity of the information you receive from the reference if you stress the kinds of responsibilities that the applicant will have if selected for the position.

The most common reference-checking mistake is to miss an opportunity to get critical information from the applicant. Try to avoid the mistakes below.

Asking leading questions. When you are checking references, let the reference provide the information. Instead of "Tom Jones told us that you and he have been friends for 10 years. Is that right?," you might want to ask, "How long have you and Tom Jones known each other?"

Asking questions that can be answered by a simple yes or no. You need to phrase the questions so that references are required to think about their responses and to answer in their own words.

Asking questions which are too general. Some information you need is very specific relative to the nature of the position and the risks you have identified.

Specific Questions to Ask

After verifying the factual information from the application (dates of employment, salary, position title, duties, etc.) there are some direct questions you should ask if the position involves working with children, handling large sums of money, or requires operating motor vehicles.

Working with Children
How would you describe his/her personal characteristics?
Probe for immaturity, shyness, introversion, non-assertiveness, indecision, or passive acquiescence.

How would you say he/she relates with children?
Probe whether or not he/she relinquishes adult role and responsibility, tends to become more like the child, places a premium on one-to-one activities rather than group activities.

Have you ever seen him/her discipline a child? If so, please describe what you saw him/her do?
The manner in which individuals try to control children's behavior can reveal their true character. Disciplinary techniques used should not be violent or emotionally degrading. They should deal with the issues involved, be constructive, and appropriate for the age of the child being disciplined.

I'd be interested in knowing if you think there may be any problems or conditions that would interfere with the applicant's ability to care for children or in any way endanger the children under the applicant's care. These problems include substance abuse, mental or emotional illness, or history of child mistreatment.

While the reason for this question is obvious, the kinds of information you may receive are not. Listen not only to the words, but also to how the words are said-is there hesitancy? equivocation?

Handling Money
_____________ has applied for a position that requires handling large sums of money. Are you aware of any problems helshe may have that would cause you concern about entrusting him/her with this responsibility?
Listen for general concern about honesty and dependability. Ask for specific examples of problems so that you eliminate rumors and gossip.

Are you aware of any financial difficulties, drug abuse problems or history of criminal conduct?
Follow-up question to the first one with specific focus on known risk factors.

Motor Vehicle Operation
Have you ever ridden in a vehicle while he/she was driving? If you have, how would you characterize his/her driving?
Warning flags you should listen for include aggressive driving, pushing the speed limit, recklessness.

Are you aware of any incidence in which he/she operated a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs?
Listen for equivocation ("Well he really wasn't under the influence, I mean he had only had a couple of beers"); evasiveness ("No, I don't really know for a fact, that he has ever driven after drinking."); justifications ("Well, hasn't everyone at one time or another.")

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