What is the current state of the employee selection process? There is still a vast sea of misunderstanding about what can and can’t be done when checking references. But in my view, it’s more of a reactive situation than an actual status report. As an employer, you can choose to take a proactive approach.

I also think the business climate has changed. The horrible events of 9/11/01 have made employers keenly aware of the need to know more about the people they’re hiring. But a huge void still exists in terms of any practical understanding of what can and can’t be done through careful reference checking. My main concern is that too many employers still see the exercise as some sort of intrusion on the careers and lives of those who’ve made a mistake to two along the way. To an extent, that may be true, but the reality of situation is that all of us have to be responsible for our own actions and live with the consequences of those actions.

Reference checking should never be viewed in a vacuum—that’s why gaining a better understanding of its purpose is so important. The essential truth about thorough reference checking is to evaluate job performance over time. It’s not the one-time mistake that ruins an otherwise promising career. It’s the record of performance over time that provides the needed insight—saving everyone time, misunderstandings, and money. Careful reference checking will hopefully show how a job seeker has grown and changed over time. A job seeker who was terrible managing others five years ago may have be a great manager today.

Most job seekers do learn from their mistakes on the job. One of the things real reference checking does best is demonstrate what a job seeker has done with the lesson learned from an isolated error in judgment. After all, it’s the job seeker who hasn’t learned from a mistake made that employers are trying to avoid.

The bottom line is this: Employers need to be more proactive in the employee selection process.