The Dos and Don'ts of Employment Background Verifications: Tips for HR Professionals

The different background verifications performed during the hiring process are one of an employer's most valuable assets. Without them, you're at the mercy of what an applicant self-reports, which isn't always the most reliable source. Studies routinely show high rates of falsehoods on resumes as applicants seek to make themselves appear as desirable as possible.

The CV often contains embellishments around educational history or the skills they obtained. However, applicants might also be dishonest about their professional history. Many employers ask about a job seeker's last few jobs and request information about the individual's title and duties. How can you be sure that what you see on a resume is true?

Answering that question is where smart employment verification procedures come into play.

What is employment verification, and why does it matter?

This process is just what it sounds like confirming that an applicant worked at the places they've claimed and verifying that what they stated when applying is truthful. However, note that this is a different topic from employment eligibility verification. Eligibility verification is about ensuring that an individual can legally work within the United States and usually involves Form I-9. That's not the topic of today's discussion.

So why should you invest time in checking with prior employers

First, the results speak to a candidate's trustworthiness and integrity. Verifying that everything lines up as expected helps build confidence in an applicant's suitability. Second, you can prove that an individual has the skills or experience to fill an open position. Finally, you may learn positive information that helps build a case for hiring an individual.

How can you use this process effectively?

The "Dos" of a Successful Employment Verification Background Check

First, let's review the elements and actions that contribute to an effective policy. Keep these things in mind as your HR team works through how it will confirm an applicant's employment history.

1. Have a written policy with clear standards

As with any type of background check, you'll need a written policy. Such a step is vital for guiding your teams and for future disputes. Use this policy to lay out what you're looking for, what you need to know, and how you will make decisions based on the information you receive.

2. Get an applicant's consent for contact

Written consent is a requirement under the FCRA, but it's always sensible to let applicants know that you intend to contact their employers. It's astute to ask for permission before you contact a current employer. That business might not yet know they have an employee seeking other opportunities. Rather than endanger their existing job, you should always seek consent first.

3. Verify contact information early in the process

Once you receive a candidate's resume with employer contact information, research to confirm that the information is accurate. Some applicants might assume you won't reach out to an old business; thus, they might fabricate a phone number or email. Sometimes, they might even enlist help from someone they know to provide a false reference. Confirm that what you've received matches the company's accurate contact information.

4. Speak directly to companies when possible

Reaching out for a chat may take time, but it's worth the effort. These brief conversations can be revealing and informative. It also provides the opportunity to touch base with an actual human. Relying on passive forms of communication, such as email, can leave your request for information stuck in a forgotten inbox.

5. Know what you intend to ask about ahead of time

Employers aren't likely to tell you much about a candidate personally for various reasons. Instead, know what info is most important to you and what you can ask about related to that. Usually, this includes confirming a candidate's job title and start and end dates. Some employers will discuss responsibilities but may not confirm or deny a candidate's role in internal projects.

6. Accept  that you might not always get an answer

Employers are not obligated to disclose information, and some may choose to say nothing as a matter of policy. Be prepared for this as a possible outcome. Contacting more than one former employer, or relying more heavily on other forms of screening, might be a necessity.

The "Don'ts" of Verifying Employment

Just as there are many important things to keep in mind about what you should do, there are also many things you should not do during this process. Here are the pitfalls to avoid as you contact employers.

1. Don't ask about protected information

You can't ask questions requiring an applicant to respond with protected information, such as health status. Likewise, you should avoid any questions that pry for personal information. Questions about protected classes defined by the Civil Rights Act should also be off-limits. Stick to the facts of an individual's employment only.

2. Don't fish for information beyond the basics

Remember, employers don't want to expose themselves to legal liability based on what they say about a current or former employee. Don't ask leading questions to learn more about something outside the usual questions. You're not likely to get the answer you want.

3. Don't ask about salary

Although some employers believe they should know about a candidate's previous pay rates to determine what to offer someone now, many states disagree. Twenty-one states currently have an outright ban on any form of salary verification in a background check. Candidates may disclose this information voluntarily, but you cannot ask about it. Even in states where it is legal, the potential for the appearance of bias or discrimination makes it a risky procedure. Additionally, most companies won't disclose this information.

4. Don't change your standards based on the applicant

Apply your standards equally across the board. If a discrepancy would disqualify one candidate, it should probably disqualify any candidate with a similar problem. Don't change the rules based on who an applicant is, how you feel about them, or how they might fit into your business.

5. Don't forget to verify employment in the first place

If you're going through the trouble of making a policy, ensure your teams follow it. It's easy to slip into simply ticking a box on a checklist because a candidate's employment history seems legitimate. As the famous phrase says, you can trust a candidate, but you should also verify what they tell you. 

A Smarter Approach to the Background Check and Employment Verification Process

The employment verification process is imperative for many reasons. From establishing a candidate's suitability to building trust in them, this step can yield some of the most critical information you uncover during hiring. However, it can also be time-consuming and a strain on overstretched HR teams.

Working with a professional third-party company to verify your background can be the answer. With one solution for conducting criminal background checks and managing the process of establishing resume information, you can review complete candidate information more cost-effectively. Find out more today about how our help can transform your hiring pipeline.

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Michael Klazema

About Michael Klazema The author

Michael Klazema is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments

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