3 Rules of Thumb for Screening Candidates Without Crossing the Line

May 4, 2016
This article is part of a series called Tips & Tricks.

Bringing in the best talent possible isn’t just about finding candidates who look the best on paper. To make sure they’re truly a fit for your organization, make sure they live up to the hype. Often, you can get a sense of this through interviews, references, and a little independent research. But in a day and age where we have nearly unlimited information at our fingertips, the temptation to dig a little too deep can sometimes be hard to avoid. As a result, you hear stories pop up every now and then of companies who went too far by investigating medical histories, credit histories and more.

No one screening candidates sets out to be the bad guy — they just want to make sure they’re bringing in the most qualified and trustworthy people possible. But there’s a fine line between doing your homework on a particular candidate and entering questionable territory. So if you want to make sure that you strike the balance between being informed and respecting your candidates’ privacy, stick to these three guidelines.

Keep After Hours Off-Limits (Within Reason)

With technology that allows us to stay plugged in at all times and an increasing emphasis on work-life blend, our personal and professional lives are becoming more integrated than ever. But at a certain point, you need to accept that not everything people do in their personal life bleeds over into the workplace. If someone has been hardworking and professional during both in-person interviews and with previous employers, what they do on their own time is a non-issue. Feel free to ask candidates general questions about what their hobbies and interests are, but avoid deep dives into things like relationship status and political beliefs.

That being said — there’s a big difference between snooping into someone’s private life and stumbling across something they’ve made public. Researching candidates via social media has become the norm, and if somebody doesn’t have the common sense to present themselves online in a flattering way, that’s on them. Especially for certain highly-visible roles like C-level executives, expect a certain standard of online decorum. Whether they intend to or not, your employees represent your brand. So if any major red flags come up as part of a standard, initial investigation on a candidate, you’re well within reason to protect your public image by passing on them.

Be Careful With the Backdoor References

Even if you haven’t heard the term before, you’re probably familiar with the practice of backdoor references — reaching out to a candidate’s former bosses or coworkers who aren’t officially listed as references. Opinions are pretty divided on whether or not this is kosher. Some think that it gives a more objective, comprehensive view of a candidate’s work style, while others think it’s an invasive move that can lead to inaccurate conclusions. It’s up to you and your workplace to decide what your policy on backdoor references is, but if you do pursue that route, you need to tread carefully and use common sense.

When it comes to backdoor references, ask fair questions. Stick to general subjects like performance, work style, and how the candidate works on a team. If you’re afraid of putting someone in an awkward position, you can always present them with the information you’ve already gathered and then simply ask them to confirm whether or not you’re on the right track. That way, you can get the scoop without prying too much into the past.

Only Go After the Need-to-Know Info

Overall, the best principle to stick to during employee screenings is to only seek out information if not having it would put your company — and the people who work there — at risk. Felony and misdemeanor checks, for example, are absolutely necessary to protect the financial well-being of your company, as well as the physical and emotional well-being of your employees.

Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with checking qualifications. Whether that means verifying somebody’s educational background, past work history, or even something more role-specific like whether or not they have a driver’s license, any information that is relevant to a particular position is fair game. This is a critical step in confirming that candidates are actually suited to do the job — and it’s also a sure-fire way to weed out the ones who don’t have enough personal integrity to be honest on their job application.

Things that don’t fall into this category for any reason? Medical history, plans to start a family, sexual orientation and of course, anything protected under the law, to name a few. Besides helping you avoid public criticism and lawsuits, it’s just the right thing to do. With implicit bias already so unfortunately prevalent, you don’t want any additional unrelated information to unfairly influence your decision.

In the digital age, there’s no doubt that we have more access to information than ever before — and the societal encouragement to take advantage of it. But remember: With great information comes great responsibility. Just as you wouldn’t want people taking a fine-tooth comb to your life, you shouldn’t aggressively pursue details on candidates without considering their wants, needs, and legal rights. Fortunately, this still gives you plenty of room to do research. If you stay respectful of privacy, use common sense in assessing past employment history and only investigate on a need-to-know basis, you’ll get all the information needed to make sure that your candidates have all-star employee potential — without feeling like Big Brother (or Sister).

This article is part of a series called Tips & Tricks.
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