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Reference Checks Are Not Enough


Thursday, March 2, 2017   Sarah Baldeo

As an executive in the screening and investigations industry, one of the most interesting moments I experience is when HR leaders tell me they do not see any value in performing criminal background checks. I often equate this with the thought, I’m confident that none of my employees have a criminal record, or I’m comfortable with the risk that my other screening processes would unequivocally rule out the potential for an employee to have a criminal history. When worded like that – this view is cause for at least some concern.

Every organization I have had the pleasure of working for has run, at the bare minimum, a criminal background check. Yet, the consensus amongst some HR professionals is that criminal checks are superfluous and reference checks are sufficient when verifying information. This logic ascribes a great deal of trust to the candidate. In the same way, an insurance company would not trust a prospective client to run their own driver’s abstract, why would an employer consider references provided by a candidate to be fraud proof.

A few hiring managers have made the argument that they can verify references through LinkedIn or Google to ensure these contacts are indeed whom they say they are. For the most part, a candidate will supply the prospective employer with the reference’s name, email and phone number. LinkedIn and Google can only verify that the person works for the said company and for how long they are been there. What failsafe is there in place to verify that the phone number provided is for the candidate’s former/current supervisor?

Depending solely on reference checks places an enormous amount of trust on candidates – it puts the onus for mitigating risk on an external candidate, instead of on the prospective employer. This process assumes that every piece of information the applicant provides is entirely honest and accurate. If this is true, HR should simply hire individuals based on their gut instincts. If the purpose of reference checks is to validate through an objective third party that the candidate is whom they say they are, not a threat to the safety of the prospective employer, and the caliber of their work is in fact up to par – does a reference check ensure all these points?

Canada is an employee-centric culture and the default is to respect the privacy of employees, to be sensitive to their rights, and to trust them until proven otherwise – these are all worthy and admirable staples of our society. However, fraud does exist, employees do fail to disclose information, and candidates do provide fraudulent references. There are employees currently in the workforce with undisclosed criminal records. Wouldn’t you want to know? If the answer is yes, criminal background checks should be the first stop in your screening process.