"I'm interviewing new employees. I've heard checking references is a good idea, what are your recommendations? On the other hand, what am I allowed to say when a prospective employer calls our office for a reference for one of our former employees?"

All too often, I come across a dentist client who avoids contacting references for new employees for a variety of reasons; not the least of which is he or she doesn’t know how to properly contact previous employers in order to obtain valuable information. Although, I’ve never come across someone who has applied for a job and provided a BAD reference! Understandably, people looking for work wouldn’t provide a reference that would give a poor report.

Sure, the most common concern here is how well the previous employer will cooperate with sensible questions that are commonplace with employment practices. Most employers would prefer to shy away from these kinds of phone calls due to the notion that negative statements may come back as a problem later. For the most part, we’re going to discuss contacting previous employers; the material is relevant to receiving reference checks, as well.

According to the Arizona Industrial Commission and Labor Board, no laws in our state of Arizona govern the issue of reference checks and what can or cannot be said. Following basic guidelines will help one decide how to disclose information about former employees and avoid litigation. One can never be too careful in today’s litigious society.

An employer may fear that if any negative statements are made one could be sued for libel (written) or slander (spoken). It is best to stick with the facts and lay aside personal feelings. Keep the information discussed basic and be brief.

In order to avoid defamation, a former employee must prove that information given out was false and that the information harmed his or her reputation. Proving the information given was true dismisses these types of legal battles. For example, disclosing disciplinary action taken during the employment period is justified provided that documentation signed by the former employee is on record. Make sure personnel files reflect fairness, objectivity and honesty; free of unproven gossip.

If an inquiry is made to your office about a former employee applying for a position in another dental office, speak only to the doctor, or the owner of the practice. Ultimately, these people are responsible for hiring, training, reviewing performance, and dismissing employees.

Thinking proactively in your own office, it would be wise to have an employment application that provides consent to contact previous employers. Include with the application simple language providing authorization to check references:

“I hereby certify that the information contained in this application form is true and correct to the best of my knowledge and agree to have any of the statements checked unless I have indicated to the contrary. I authorize the references listed above, as well as previous employers who you may contact, to provide any and all information concerning my previous employment and any other pertinent information that they may have.

Further, I release all parties and persons from any and all liability for any damages that may result from furnishing such information as well as from the use or disclosure of such information by the employer or any of its agents, employ­ees or representatives."

Next, during the initial interview, discuss with the applicant that you will be contacting previous employers, unless he or she objects. If the candidate objects, then ask, “Why?” Discussing this issue up front is smart because an answer the applicant provides along with their body language provides insight into whether or not the applicant will be a good hire.

Once you have the go ahead to contact previous employers, follow a process of asking questions that confirm information on the application. For example, confirm dates of employment and salary range. Ask if job duties and responsibilities were adequately performed. What are the person’s greatest strengths, and weaknesses? Was the former employee terminated or did they resign? And finally, the “Crown Jewel” of all questions that will tell a person most all he or she needs to know about a prospective employee is, “Given the opportunity, would you hire the employee again?” A “yes” or “no” answer speaks volumes. Take it from there.

By the way, in preparation for a telephone call from another person checking on a previous employee, consider the following. Be ready to begin the call by stating that you will be glad to discuss basic information, such as dates of employment, salary range from date of hire to end of employment, and job duties and responsibilities. This sets the stage nicely for what you intend to discuss and what the person on the other end may indeed with to know.

Keep in mind, a previous employer you are contacting may be reluctant to provide any information that may damage the candidates’ ability to seek and acquire employment. Although, some states, such as Kansas, have passed laws that require a person must show “clear and convincing evidence” that the former employer acted in bad faith in providing job-related information. Ask the questions we have discussed here and wait for responses that may clue you in to how anxious, or reluctant, the previous employer is to re-hire the person.

It also pays to be discrete while attending informal gatherings. Don’t speak freely at a meeting or other functions where social and/or business chatter may take place. Among colleagues and employees, disclose the reasons for firing strictly on a need-to-know basis. Limit the announcements to, “Sally has left the practice and we’re seeking a replacement.” Either ‘speak well of the dead’, or say nothing at all. For example, if one believes nothing positive can be said of a former employee, simply state that it is the policy of the practice not to comment on former employees with prospective employers. Airing grievances about someone will likely spread, potentially causing legal complications.