Kellie G. Olah
SPHR, CVPM, SHRM-SCP
HR Huddle columnist Kellie Olah is the practice management and human resources consultant at Veterinary Business Advisors. The company provides legal, human resources and practice management services to veterinarians nationwide. Olah is a certified veterinary practice manager, a certified veterinary business leader and a nationally certified senior professional in human resources.Read Articles Written by Kellie G. Olah
Anyone who has applied for a job or hired an employee is familiar with the application’s references section. The form typically asks for three of them, possibly a mix of personal and work contacts. Employer references might be current or former supervisors and co-workers. Personal references are friends and family members.
The Benefits of Reference Checks
Because a job applicant chooses the references, some companies are skeptical of their value. That said, a veterinary practice can use reference checks to verify applicant-provided facts, such as dates of employment and job titles, the duties performed and the reason for separation, while also getting a sense of the person’s abilities and attitude, reliability, work style and much more.
If a reference’s responses conflict with what the applicant provided, you might have a reason for concern. On the other hand, if everything checks out, you might have confirmation that the applicant is a good fit for your practice.
Reference calls can go beyond verifying information. They also help ensure that you’re hiring someone who will contribute significantly to your practice and its productivity. Before hiring a team member, you also need to do due diligence and feel assured that the person won’t pose a safety problem for co-workers and clients, either through behavior or negligence.
Setting the Stage
Before you call an applicant’s references:
- Consider emailing first to set up a time for a phone call.
- Be clear about what you can and can’t ask legally.
- Be prepared with a list of questions.
At the start of each call:
- Provide your name and job title and identify your veterinary practice.
- Promise and maintain confidentiality.
During the call:
- Verify the information on the application.
- Ask your list of questions and, without providing guidance, let the other person answer fully.
General questions you can ask might focus on the applicant’s responsibilities and abilities, personality, and accomplishments. You also can ask about weaknesses, needed training, how the person responds to feedback and so forth. One key question is, “Would you hire [Name] again? Why or why not?”
Describe the job at your practice and ask whether the person would be a good fit, and, if so, why. Ask what it’s like to work with the candidate and how well the person got along with managers and co-workers.
You also can ask open-ended questions such as:
- What else should I know about [Name] that I haven’t asked?
- Who else should I speak to about [Name]?
Typically, references won’t provide many negative comments, partly because the applicant usually lists people likely to give positive reviews. Sometimes, a company is reluctant to say anything that would create liability and instead will stick to the basic facts and answer only a few questions. Such a response might follow company policy and not imply anything negative. However, an overly positive reference can be a red flag because no one is perfect.
Questions to Avoid
Remember that you can’t discriminate against a job applicant based on the person’s race, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation or disability, so don’t ask related questions. Also, don’t ask about height, weight, marital status, children and other family members.
Although you can run a background check with a job candidate’s consent, don’t ask about an applicant’s possible criminal record during the reference call. Likewise, avoid questions about the person’s credit and salary history. Instead, glean such information from the background check’s credit section.
When People Call You
You’ll receive reference calls from companies asking about a former employee of yours. To protect your veterinary practice, be sure to respond appropriately. Also:
- Designate a manager or human resources professional to handle the calls.
- Confirm that the caller is entitled to receive the information.
- Understand any state labor laws governing what you can and can’t say.
In general, your practice is immune from liability if you answer reference questions in good faith and without malice. But, of course, courts can interpret intent in diverse ways, so here is additional guidance:
- You can choose to provide only the dates of employment and job titles. If that’s your policy, follow it consistently to avoid discrimination charges. Note that hiring companies might perceive scant information as a negative reference.
- Your policy might be to share officially documented facts, such as whether the employee was fired, failed a drug test or consistently missed deadlines. If you can back up what you say, you can legally state the facts. Know that saying someone was frequently late on projects isn’t the same as saying the employee was lazy. Avoid judgment statements.
- You may decline to say whether someone is eligible for rehire, in part because you might not have the knowledge or authority to answer. If so, be consistent in how you answer the query.
- When onboarding employees, consider asking them to sign a release allowing your practice to respond to reference questions if the occasion arises.
What should you ask a friend or family member who is listed as a reference? Forget about the candidate’s marital status and parenting skills and any other topics that could lead to accusations of discriminatory hiring practices. Instead, ask about their relationship and its length. Ask about the applicant’s interpersonal skills, problem-solving prowess, reliability, honesty and integrity. Finally, ask for examples of when the candidate displayed each character trait and whether the applicant would be an excellent veterinary practice employee. If you sense hesitancy on the final question or red flags in answer to other ones, take those responses as seriously as you would from a professional reference.