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Are Background Checks Necessary?

(Note: the last three posts talked about making a character trait list, posting better job descriptions and help wanted ads, and crafting insightful interview questions. You’ve done your interviews. Now what?)

I got a phone call. “I’m doing a background check and one of our applicants listed you as a former employer. Can you verify when this employee worked for you?”

I have made this same phone call. As employers we have rules of what we can and cannot say during one of these phone calls. Each state has its own rules. A former employer can confirm dates of employment, roles/titles, and usually answer one simple question … “Is this employee eligible for rehire?” 

It kinda sucks when you’re checking someone’s background with these limitations. If they were honest about when they worked and what they did, and they are still eligible for rehire, you learn very little. In fact, most background checks are done not to confirm a potential hire but to derail that job offer. Give me one reason to say No.

Even though they rarely ever confirm a good hire, background checks are still necessary. It is better to have exhausted all the reasons to say No. Background checks still tell you something. They tell you if someone is honest. They tell you if someone has neglected to tell you everything about themselves.

Along with calling former employers I also check the court sites. One applicant had three six-month gaps in his employment record. He told me in the interview he was working for a friend doing odd jobs. His friend must have worked at the county jail each of those stints. Another applicant was being considered for a warehouse and delivery position until the list of speeding tickets and two reckless driver tickets appeared.

Sometimes, however, a background check can surprise you. I called one former employer who said, “Wait, are you telling me she’s looking for a job? I need to call her. I’d love to have her back!”

One time when someone called me about one of my former employees the caller asked, “Is there anything else you can tell us?” He knew the answer was likely No—especially if you call a big chain store. My answer surprised him …

“If you don’t hire her, you will have made the biggest mistake in your HR life.”

Sure, seasonal retail help is one of the lowest rungs on the employment ladder. These aren’t confirmation hearings for lifetime positions so you likely won’t need the Senate or FBI. But your store deserves to have the very best. Almost all my full-time employees started as seasonal staff. If you do the proper job identifying the right team members at this stage, you’ll create the team and culture you want for the long run in no time at all.

WHEN TO CHECK THEIR BACKGROUNDS

Some employers check backgrounds before doing interviews. For big positions with tons of qualified applicants, I can understand vetting before interviewing. If you have more good applicants than you have time to interview them all, do a quick search of your District Court, State Felony, and Sex Offender websites. If that doesn’t eliminate anyone, then go to social media and see what they are posting on FB or Instagram. Chances are good that might knock out one or two people.

I preferred to check backgrounds after the interview. I only checked on the people I liked, looking for some reason to sway me off hiring that person. If they didn’t show the character traits I wanted through the application and interview process, I wasn’t wasting my time checking their backgrounds.

Although I have been used as a personal reference several times (and written several letters of recommendation), in my early days of hiring I rarely ever checked those references. I only called former employers who weren’t chain stores. I also made a few bad hires in my day and twice heard from someone who had been listed as a personal reference that told me they wouldn’t have recommended that person to work for me. I learned that lesson the hard way.

References are mainly for filling in holes in the details and finding reasons to say no. It is worth checking them. Otherwise Buyer Beware.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS Check with your state’s hiring laws to see what you can and can’t ask in a reference check (and also to know what you can and can’t answer when someone calls you). Bookmark your local District Court site, your state’s felony site, and your state/local sex offender registry sites. Your customers deserve that from you.

PPS The former employee of mine got the job. She told me her boss said it was my comment that won him over. She’s been there 12 years now. I hired the employee whose former employer wanted her back. That was all the reference I needed.

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