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Past Employment/Academic Training Checks

Past Employment/Academic Training Checks

Table of Contents

I. Purpose of Past Employment / Academic Training Checks

II. Getting Past Employment / Academic Training Checks

     A. Ask for Job Related Information

          1. How to Structure Your Questions

          2. Verifying School Records

     B. Confidentiality Requirements for Sources of Information Under the Privacy Act

     C. Records Maintenance

III. Giving Reference Checks

IV. Final Word of Advice


I. Purpose of Past Employment/Academic Training Checks

The reasons to contact someone knowledgeable about the applicant are twofold:

  1. to verify the correctness of information given by an applicant in an employment application or interview and
  2. to predict success.

The first purpose is to verify prior employment, academic degree, grade point average, etc. Studies have shown that inaccuracies of up to 57% were found in information provided by applicants. The second purpose is to obtain information for predicting job performance that cannot be obtained in other ways. In the application the individual tells you what she/he did; someone familiar with the applicant can tell you how well it was done. This is often called a "reference check."

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II. Getting Past Employment/Academic Training Checks

     A. Ask for Job Related Information

References may be obtained through the mail, over the telephone, or in person. The disadvantages of the mail are its low rate of return and the length of time to receive a response. The advantages of telephone references over mail are

  1. Over the telephone you can probe and get clarification about an applicant's qualifications,
  2. You get clues from the reference giver's voice, and
  3. It speeds up the selection process.

If possible, getting a reference in person may give you the most information.

All questions asked of past supervisors and other reference givers should be job related. Questions asked not related to the job could be cause for litigation. Employers may not request information from a reference giver about an applicant's disability, physical or mental impairment, prior work-related injuries, drug or alcohol addiction. A rejected applicant may claim that be or she was not selected for discriminatory reasons. Past supervisors are the best sources of information; Personnel/Human Resources Departments usually have very little information available other than verifying dates of employment, salary, and job title. Federal Human Resources Offices will give out information on documented personnel actions such as reprimands, demotions, removals, and suspensions, but usually the Human Resources Office must obtain this information for you. However, warning letters, oral admonishments, letters of requirement, leave restriction letters, and notices of deficiency are documents that are retained by the employee's immediate office.

Reference givers are often unwilling to talk about an applicant's weaknesses because they may not want to provide information which could potentially subject them to liability. To get a person's opinion about the applicant, we suggest a technique in which you discuss what training the candidate would need in order to have the best opportunity for success. Explain what is required on the job and ask whether the candidate would need formal classes or other on-the-job training to perform those duties. A person is more likely to respond to that question than to an inquiry about the applicant's weaknesses.

There may be times when a reference giver provides you with information that is not pertinent to the position you are filling. In these cases take care to base your hiring decision on factors related to the job being filled.

          1. How to Structure Your Questions

It is important to formulate and organize questions to elicit answers that will provide information you need to make a well informed selection. Reference formats can vary from a blank page that asks reference givers to give their opinions of the applicant's qualifications for the job to a questionnaire. The blank page allows the reference givers complete freedom to say whatever they think is important about the applicant. The disadvantage is that they may not cover areas that you are interested in and the quality depends on the effort and communication skills of the reference giver. The questionnaire takes less time to complete, but forces a structure which may limit a reference giver's expression. Appendix A (PDF) is a form which incorporates a questionnaire, some open ended questions and an area for additional comments. This form may be modified by selecting officials and can be used by the interviewer as a guide for asking questions of the reference giver over the telephone.

          2. Verifying School Records

Generally, colleges will verify over the telephone whether an applicant received a degree and when they received it. They will not verify courses completed or grades/grade point averages. To obtain an official transcript, the student must request the academic institution to send you the transcript. You may want to verify education if your vacancy has an education requirement or if the applicant is substituting education for experience. Only ask for this information if you can show it is job related.

     B. Confidentiality Requirements for Sources of Information Under the Privacy Act

An interviewer must give applicants information obtained during a preemployment reference check if they request it, under either the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or the Privacy Act. This information must be provided by the supervisor to applicants through the Human Resources Office. A supervisor may, however, grant a reference giver confidentiality. If granted, the confidentiality applies only to the source's identity, and any information furnished by the source that would reveal the identity of the source. Records of telephone inquiries must also specify whether reference givers were promised confidence, otherwise the source of the reference may be given to the applicant. To ensure that the names of sources of information can be withheld, we recommend that supervisors utilize the statements in Appendix A (PDF) concerning confidentiality.

     C. Records Maintenance

You are not required to take notes when you are interviewing a reference giver. If you do take notes, it is recommended that notes be maintained for six months. If during that time there is no inquiry, the information should be shredded. Since preemployment checks are covered under the privacy act, they should be held in confidential files.

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III. Giving Reference Checks

A reference giver should provide factual information based upon personal knowledge/observation of the person or on the basis of official records. All information provided to a prospective employer should be job related. If you are asked a question that does not sound job related, ask the reference checker in what context they need the information. If there is no connection, supervisors are advised not to comment.

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IV. Final Word of Advice

For some applicants, like those with no prior experience or those returning to the work force after a long break, it can be very difficult to get a reference check and you have to make a selection without this valuable information. In these cases it is important to know if the applicant will have to serve a probationary period or if they have already completed one. A probationary period is considered the last screening device. Individuals who cannot perform the job may be terminated during this period. If a person has already completed a probationary period, this screening device usually is not applicable, Your staffing specialist can tell you if an applicant has completed his or her probationary period.

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  1. 5 CFR 736.103
  2. The Use of Reference Checks for Selection, Personnel Research
  3. Report 80-12, Office of Human Resources Management, May 1980
  4. How to ... Write Reference Letters ... Right, College Placement: Council, Legal Brief, 1991
  5. BNA Policy and Practice Series, The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., 1993
  6. Federal Personnel Manual, Chapter 731
  7. Interviewing and Selecting, August 1993, Martin Friedman

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