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600 E Boulevard Ave
Dept 113
Bismarck, ND 58505-0120

Phone · 701.328.3290
Fax · 701.328.1475
Email · hrms@nd.gov

Employment Verification · 701.328.2677

Management: Recruitment and Selection

Reference Checking

Since past performance is often the best predictor of future performance, the best way to verify an applicant’s background and job suitability is to conduct a thorough reference check.

Today, employers are hesitant to give information about previous employees for fear of being sued. Therefore, many employers only confirm dates of employment and positions held. However, North Dakota Century Code 34-02-18 grants immunity from civil liability to employers or their agents who provide truthful information regarding dates of employment, pay level, job description and duties, wage history, and job performance if the information is not considered confidential according to law or a nondisclosure agreement and is provided in good faith.

Employers are increasingly being held liable for negligent hiring (not properly investigating the background of individuals who may pose a risk of harm to others). The best defense against charges of negligent hiring is complete reference checks. By contacting any of the following, one can gain important information that will be helpful in making the selection decision:

In the case of an applicant who is working or has worked for another state agency, the personnel file is an open record and may be reviewed.

How to Check References

- Telephone versus Written Means

The most effective means for gathering reference information is the telephone. Even though many employers give limited information, it’s worth it to try to make a phone contact. Telephone reference checks make it possible for you to listen to the tone of voice and voice inflections and to encourage the reference to talk. It also allows for clarification of comments. If a reference responds, "You’ll be lucky to get him to work for you," you have the opportunity to probe for the real meaning of the statement; whereas, with a written reference, you could not probe for more information.

Obtaining written references is a time-consuming process. It could take a minimum of two weeks from the time you mail the request for information until you receive a response. Furthermore, written reference requests are often completed by the human resource or personnel office, even if directed to a specific supervisor or manager. Employers hesitate to provide written references because of the liability involved. Obtaining valuable information may be more likely with a telephone contact.

- Guidelines to Reference Checking

Notify the applicant:

Preparing for the reference check:

Conducting the phone reference check:

- Evaluating References

Carefully question the validity of comments made by former employers, especially negative information discovered in reference checking. It’s not uncommon for employers to let negative feelings show through if an employee resigned for a better position. Likewise, sometimes employees terminated for poor performance have worked out a deal with former employers to ensure a positive reference.

Be aware that if a background check turns up reports of an arrest or conviction record, financial or credit problems, or EEO suit, such information can only be used to reject the applicant if the employer can show some business necessity for disqualification.

Don’t rule out an applicant based on a single reference check. Regardless of how questions were worded, references will provide some biased responses, both positive and negative. This justifies conducting more than one reference check to verify the information received.

Loss of one job does not necessarily mean that the applicant will do poorly in another or that the applicant possesses deficiencies in job skills or abilities. There may have been extenuating circumstances that contributed to a termination of employment - inappropriate job match, lack of funding, etc.

If a reference reports a personality conflict, don’t assume that it was the applicant’s personality that caused the conflict. Probe for more information.

Reference checking is just one of many factors to consider in making a final selection decision. While impression of a reference may be subjective, consensus of all references may be looked at as being objective.

- Checking Criminal Records

For positions where an employee comes into close, unsupervised contact with customers or clients, extra care in checking references and background is advisable. There are many cases of employers being held liable for not discovering past criminal records of employees that would have disqualified them as applicants.

The North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) will provide criminal history record information for a small fee. An SFN 51915, Information Release Authorization for Employment Consideration form (268kb pdf) is required. If BCI does not receive this form, they will notify the applicant that a criminal history record information check has been requested.

The report you receive from BCI will contain conviction information and information on reportable events such as arrests or grand jury indictments that occurred within the past year and if the information has not been sealed. Be aware that arrest and grand jury indictment information that appears on this report should not be used to automatically disqualify an applicant. Balance the conviction information you receive with the position for which you’re recruiting. For information on obtaining criminal history record information on an applicant, contact your human resource representative or the Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

- Providing References

Human Resource Management Services recommends that each agency determines who in the agency is responsible for providing employment references on current or former employees. The Division recommends a centralized approach where one individual such as the human resource representative or another designee provide references based on employment information provided to them by direct supervisors and information contained in the personnel files.

A significant advantage to a centralized approach of providing references is more uniformity and consistency in the information being released. When numerous individuals within in an agency are providing references, varying types and amounts of information could potentially be provided.

Individuals providing employment references need to be aware of the legal implications associated with that responsibility. Avoiding potential liability for you and your employer is extremely important.

You, as a supervisor, will be contacted at some point to provide a reference on current or past employees. Do not provide references without clear authority from your supervisor or agency human resource representative to do so. If you are unsure about your authority to provide references, tell the caller that you will return his/her call shortly. You can then contact your immediate supervisor or human resource representative to find out the proper way to respond to the reference inquiry.

If you have been given authority to provide a verbal reference, here are some general guidelines to consider:

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