Human resources professional Suzanne Johnson used to pick up the phone, call a company "and get honest feedback about an applicant."
But that doesn't happen in most organizations today, Johnson said. "And I haven't given out much information either. It's usually company policy."
Thus was born a $10 billion-a-year reference- and background-checking industry. It has mushroomed in the last three years since hiring withered and hundreds of applicants vied for single job openings.
"It's expensive to make a hiring mistake," said Sue Christopher, a vice president of human resources in Overland Park, Kan. "We want to know as much as we can about a person before they're hired so we can make a good hiring decision - are people who they really say they are?"
When employers stopped spilling opinions about how good or bad an employee was, the next employer had to get the skinny some other way.
"We need to have some information below the surface of what we can see," Christopher said. "So many companies are doing their due diligence by outsourcing background checking."
Hundreds of companies now work for both employers and even applicants to check work and education histories; dig up lawsuits, criminal, credit and driving records; and see what people's references and past supervisors will say, even when policies say they shouldn't.
The findings are cringe-worthy.
"We return unfavorable data in about half of all reference checks," said Jeff Shane, executive vice president at Allison & Taylor. The company works for applicants, helping individuals learn what former employers are finding or saying about them.
"Unfavorable data" can mean anything from lies on resumes to a negative tone of voice when a supervisor follows company protocol and gives only the barest information about a former employee.
Background checking, said Darren Dupriest, with Validity Screening Solutions in Overland Park, is a "necessary evil." Workers tend to embellish their credentials, so employers are even more cautious about hiring.
So organizations will spend a modest amount - maybe $60 per check - to research applicants rather than get hit later with expensive lawsuits connected to bad hires.
"You'd think people would be honest when you tell them you're doing a background search," said Steve Snodgrass, an executive recruiter in Overland Park. "But even at the highest level we find things that can come back to haunt people."
According to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, three-fourths of employers routinely verify previous employment and dates of service for all job candidates.
Society membership skews toward employers with professional human resource staffs. But even the "mom-and-pops" are more sophisticated about checking whether applicants are who they say they are and did what they say they did.
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In the Kansas City area, for example, maybe half of all employers are running background checks on their own or paying a company to do it. That means that many aren't checking, but job hunters often don't know who's checking or how deeply.
Eric Farley is one job hunter who has begun to wonder whether a former boss is badmouthing him. Like many job seekers, he has no idea why he's had no luck after months of applying.
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