Reference and background checking became more common with the introduction of mass production and the advent of a mobile workforce. During the last half of the 19th century, most job seekers never ventured very far from home. It was more or less expected that young people would take jobs in their hometowns—and stay there. The face of the job market has changed dramatically, however, particularly during the period between the world wars, into a very mobile workforce.
Reference and background checking evolved from something more than a casual conversation between store owners in the same town. It started becoming a necessity, especially in the post-World War II era. By the early 1950s reference checking, for example, grew from a casual conversation into a structured interview requiring considerable skill, training, intuition, and good judgment. Since the 1980s, reference checking, especially, has become more of an art than merely a perfunctory checklist of yes/no questions sometimes posed to previous employers.
Nevertheless, it has only been with the last decade that many hiring managers have realized that just having an “honest face” might not be sufficient information upon which to base a hiring decision. That has become especially true in light of all the increasingly specialized jobs that have been created in the high-pay, fast-paced, increasingly computerized business world of today. The point, as I see it, is that serious reference and background checking are relatively new services available to employers, but the basic process of one employer talking to another about how the neighbor boy might work out as a clerk in the local dry goods store has been gong on, informally, for a very long time.
So, to reiterate, are reference and background checking standard business practices? You bet they are—and they have been for a very long time!