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Any hiring manager who has ever conducted an interview process has dealt with either a reference or background check – most likely both. But aside from being a standard part of conventional hiring wisdom, do you really know what these procedures are actually looking for? While they’re both checking out something, they’re functionality is derived from dramatically different purposes.

Even though we would like to assume that all applicants are completely honest on their resume, most companies cannot afford to run the risk of not knowing if a candidate has any criminal records hiding in their closet. The purpose of a background check is to look up and gather job-relevant criminal, commercial, and financial records of an individual before advancing further in the interview process.[1] The most common background check requires a scan of an applicant’s social security number. The search reveals country criminal records, employment verification, and education confirmations for all schooling after high school dating back up to seven years.[2]  Currently over 90% of companies conduct a background check before making a hiring decision with the intention of ensuring and promoting safety and security at the workplace.[3] Then it is up to us and upper management to use the results to evaluate any possible findings and proceed with the interview process.

Reference checks, on the other hand, are done as a means of protecting against another type of liability – that of hiring a poor performer. Reference checking, although an activity that has long been deemed unproductive and ineffective, has recently turned over a new stone. With automated reference checking, firms are able to quickly interact with a candidate’s references through an online experience. What’s more, the reference checking survey leveraged in our ChequedReferenceTM product has been rigorously developed on behavioral science principals to ask structured, job-relevant questions in a way that are easy to answer. What’s more, the unique candidate introductions to the process and the anonymity protection offered prompt references to answer the questions more candidly, providing hiring managers with multiple data points form which they can quickly and easily determine which candidate will be the best driver of business.

In an ideal world, every applicant would be completely honest and provide a comprehensive understanding of how they’ll perform on the job. The reality, however, is that this just doesn’t happen.

To improve the odds of receiving candidate honesty, you must create an atmosphere that encourages candidates to be upfront about any aspect of their career history that may worry them, as a simple clarification could keep them in the running.

Nevertheless, there is a need for both reference and background checks; the prior ensures candidate fit for the specific job and prevents hiring poor performers, while the latter protects a safe work environment.

As a hiring manager, you should always remember that regardless of how good an applicant may look on paper or sound during the interview, you need to check their references and background to guarantee you will get exactly what you will be paying for.

  1. Association of Executive Search Consultants 
  2. A Matter of Fact: Employment Background Checks
  3. Society for Human Resources Management, Background Checking: Conducting Criminal Background Checks (Jan. 22, 2010),

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