Background Checks

Are reference and background checks standard business practices? The answer is an unequivocal “yes.” How else can an employer find out if the candidate is all he claims to be?  Not only that, but of equal importance is whether or not the candidate can do all that he claims he can. Believe it or not, we have encountered employers who still think they can judge a candidate’s prospects for job success solely on the basis of a face-to-face interview — and nothing more. Clearly, this attitude is a holdover from hiring practices that were in fashion at least 75 years ago — and still evident as recently as the 1990s.

Let’s look back at the way many employers used to carry out the employee selection process. In a much earlier era, most people were hired on the basis of just two or three criteria:

  • The contents of their resume (if they had one)
  • A job interview
  • Occasionally, but not always, a letter of introduction written by a trusted friend or relative

Prior to the industrial revolution, some combination of these three criteria were all the typical shopkeeper or craftsman needed in order to make a hiring decision. Why? Because before the days of industrialization, there were no large companies that employed hundreds, let alone thousands of people. Most businesses were very small operations, particularly during the colonial period in this country. The owner usually worked right alongside the handful of people he employed and could see if they were doing the job or not.

There were no laws protecting workers’ rights.  The employee either measured up to the requirements of the job or he didn’t, and if he didn’t he was “discharged.” Because most job seekers were unskilled, not to mention uneducated, drifting from one job to another was not uncommon. There was little need to find out if the job seeker was really who he claimed to be or had the necessary skills to do the job. The person either learned the job quickly or was fired. On the other hand, the willingness to work hard and long hours was the best test of someone’s employability.

Since the industrial revolution, however, job specialization has been constantly increasing as the skills required to do very specialized jobs have become more and more demanding.  As a result, it has become increasingly important to hire people who already have the experience, training and skills to handle more and more specialized jobs. Job knowledge, therefore, became a prerequisite, not a luxury.

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 within 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 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 going on, informally, for a very long time.

For jobs that almost anyone can perform with only a few hours of training, nothing more than an honest face still gets some people hired, but this simplistic approach to hiring is rapidly disappearing from the employment process. Because we’ve become such a litigious society — negligent hiring, negligent referral, defamation of character, invasion of privacy — threats of all these civil actions have worked together to create something of a hostile environment for the employer. Of course it makes sense for prospective and former employers to be able to share information; the only sensible limitation on this sort of sharing is that the information should always be true and accurate.