SANTA CRUZ COUNTY
PERSONNEL ADMINISTRATIVE MANUAL
FILLING OF VACANCIES
May 12, 1999
The purpose of this policy is to
provide guidelines on the legal and most effective methods of performing
reference checks to independently verify whether the employment and educational
background of the person being considered for hiring is consistent with what
was learned through the selection process; to determine the best job/person
match for the position; and to legally give reference information on employees
supervised when requested from other sources.
Labor Code Section 432.7
(Prohibitions on asking about arrests)
Civil Service Rule Section IV - Standards and Qualifications for
Civil Code Section 47(c) (Qualified privilege for providing information in good
faith on a need-to-know basis)
- Conducting Reference Checks
- County policy requires that
departments conduct thorough reference checks PRIOR TO MAKING ANY JOB
- The reference check is an
opportunity for the appointing authority to obtain information from other
sources about the candidate's work history, determine to what extent the
work experience of the candidate is related to departmental needs, and to
identify job-related problem areas.
- Reference check decisions
are based upon official County applications and supplemental information. Examples include: supervisors for
positions listed by the applicant on his/her job application, reference
information received from the candidate, official County Personnel files
for existing employees, and telephone or written information received via
- The reference check differs
from a background investigation. Background investigations apply to
certain law enforcement or criminal justice agency jobs. Background
investigations are also a structured part of the examination process and
are conducted based upon specific requirements of the class that has
determined to be a bona fide occupational requirement that the individual
pass prior to a job offer being made. (See Personnel Administrative
Manual Section IV.8. Background Investigations)
- Civil Service Rule
IV.B (Applicability of Employment Standards) permits the disqualification
of an applicant based upon certain specific factors, after review by and
with the approval of the Personnel Director. Departments may request the
disqualification of an applicant based on factual information, but should
never take action without the prior approval of the Personnel
- Giving Reference Information
Certain steps must be taken to legally give
reference information on employees supervised. The County has a policy to
candidly give reference information to other appointing authorities within
the County of Santa
Cruz and to use specific guidelines in
giving reference information to requestors outside of the County.
- CONDUCTING REFERENCE CHECKS
ON PROSPECTIVE EMPLOYEES
Following the selection interviews for any job opening, departments should
initiate reference checks on top candidates for additional information to
consider in the hiring decision.
- REFERENCE CHECK GUIDELINES
The following are guidelines to assist in achieving the most accurate and
valuable information through the reference check process.
- LEGAL RESTRICTIONS
Just as in the selection process, reference checks should be conducted in
compliance with anti-discrimination laws. You cannot probe into race,
color, religion, disability, medical condition, national origin,
ancestry, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, age (over 40), or
veteran's status for purposes of hiring. Therefore, the reference
checking procedure should not question reference givers in a manner
which would elicit information specifying the candidate's membership in
a protected class, disability, medical condition or the like.
- Arrest Information
- Certain job classes and
positions within the Santa Cruz
County system require
background investigations. These apply to certain specified law
enforcement classes and criminal justice agencies. These are conducted
through taking fingerprints and running background clearances through
the California Department of Justice (CA DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of
Investigation (FBI), and through structured background investigations
conducted by the department.
- Determining information
regarding arrests through the reference check is prohibited by Labor
Code Section 432.7.
- The only exceptions to
the above, where the hiring agency can ask about arrests are in
conjunction with a background investigation, are as follows:
- Persons seeking
employment as peace officers.
- Persons seeking employment
for positions in a criminal justice agency. For Santa
these are the: Sheriff-Coroner Office, District Attorney's Office, and
- Persons seeking
employment for positions in the jail nursing unit of Health Services
Agency (HSA) regarding arrests for sex offenses specified in Penal
Code Section 290, and, if such person has access to drugs and
medications, arrests for controlled substance offenses specified in
Health & Safety Code Section 11590.
- Persons seeking
employment in the Information Services Department having access to the
Criminal Justice Information System.
- Conviction Information
- Each applicant is
required to respond to questions regarding convictions on the form
PER1A, County of Santa
Cruz Employment Application (question
10). If there is an affirmative response, the applicant is required to
provide a detailed explanation of the conviction(s). This information
may be provided to the appointing authority along with certification
lists and applications.
- For positions requiring
background investigations, this information is investigated as a part
of the examination process (See Personnel Administrative Manual Section
IV.8. Background Investigations).
- For positions not
requiring background investigations, the material on the application
and supplemental information should be reviewed carefully to assure
that Civil Service Rule Section IV.B.5 does not apply. Any questions in
this area should be referred to Personnel or County
Counsel, PRIOR TO ANY JOB
OFFERS BEING MADE.
- REFERENCE CHECK PREPARATION
BEFORE CONDUCTING THE INTERVIEW
The critical point in preparing for reference checks is before the
selection interview. Carefully review the application for omissions;
inconsistencies; periods where employment is not listed (County
applications ask the applicant to list employment related to the class);
and the like. During the selection interview, ask the candidate to
provide the missing information and to explain any gaps. Be sure to ask
about current employment since the candidate may have changed jobs since
completing the application. You cannot do reference checks unless you
have the name of each firm or agency and the supervisor's name and phone
number. You will also want to get a good understanding of the candidate's
duties and responsibilities in each job. Ask the candidate what duties
their supervisor performed and, if applicable, ask what duties the
candidate's subordinates performed. This will help ensure a candidate's
honest description of his/her own work and accomplishments. In addition,
be sure to verify any required licenses (DMV or otherwise) or
certificates. This will save time and avoid problems later.
Before ending the selection interview, be sure to ask the candidate if
you can contact the present employer if, on the application form, they
have responded "no" to the question, "May we contact this
employer?". Explain to the candidate that
you cannot complete the selection process without contacting the current
and previous employers and the information you have is incomplete. Ask
the candidate to help you find a way to contact the current employer. If
the candidate insists that the employer not be contacted, inform him/her
that this may be a barrier to considering him/her for employment.
You should obtain a written release from the candidate waiving any
liability that the reference giver might have as to defamation, invasion
of privacy, or misrepresentations. Such a waiver can be helpful in
securing more candid information from the candidate's employers. Use of this
form also will help limit the liability of the County. (See form PER3011,
Reference Check Waiver, at the end of this manual section.)
Because of the importance of the selection interview in successful
reference checks, the same person who conducts the interview should
conduct the reference check.
- INFORMATION TO CANDIDATES
REGARDING REFERENCE CHECKS
Never tell a candidate that s/he has the job if s/he can pass the
reference check. This sets up the previous employer, yourself, and the
County for possible lawsuits. Instead, tell the candidate that you will
make a decision after interviewing all candidates and completing
reference checks, and that you will get back to them after you have made
- PREPARATION PRIOR TO
CONDUCTING THE REFERENCE CHECK
Prepare a set of questions to ask. These questions should apply to all
candidates that you will seriously consider hiring. You should also
include specific questions to help clarify problem areas you may have
identified with some of the finalists.
It is understandable that changes in a work unit occur over time, including the
employees, their skills and personalities, and the needs of a department.
Nonetheless, consistency in the manner and content of reference checks for
similar jobs is an important defense against claims of improper treatment.
- WHO TO CONTACT
Reference checking should be like networking -- each contact should be
able to identify others you can contact. Start with the obvious -- the
former employers. In each contact, ask for names of others who worked
with the individual and know their work performance.
Also, consider contacting your counterpart in the previous employer's
agency and anyone else you know who may have knowledge or direct you to
someone who does.
In conducting a reference check of a current Santa
employee, you can contact current and former supervisors without a
release from the candidate. This allows you to get candid information
regarding candidates work history from other County supervisors/managers.
If you have problems receiving candid information from other County
departments please contact the Personnel Department.
- CONDUCTING THE REFERENCE
CHECK BY TELEPHONE
Find a way to "break the ice" when you begin your reference
check. During the selection interview, you may have gained some insight
into the reference's background and interests from the candidate. Use
that information here to your advantage. Remember that the person
providing the reference is doing you a favor. Keep their interest, be
concise, respect their time, and be polite. Start with the basic, simple
questions first, including verifying employment dates, types of work
performed, titles, compensation, and whom they worked for prior to
joining the reference's organization. Then, move on to the more revealing
areas. Reprinted below from Robert Half's reference checking guide are
- How does s/he compare to
the person who's doing the job now? Or, what characteristics will you
look for to replace him/her?
- Would you rehire this
person? Why? Why not?
- When there was a
particularly urgent assignment, what steps did s/he take to get it done
- No matter how good any
individual is in the job, there always seems to be some areas that they
are better at than others. What are those areas?
- Have you seen his/her
current resume? Let me read you the part that describes his/her job with
your organization. (Stop at each significant point, and ask the
reference for a comment).
- How well did the
individual work with other employees? Did the person have any problems
working with others? What kind of people did s/he have problems with?
How you ask questions is important. Do not ask questions that can be
answered with a simple yes or no, or leading
questions where the "acceptable" answer is obvious.
Example 1. Instead of asking if X's attendance was okay, ask, "What
was X's attendance record? How many unscheduled absences were there in
the last year; the previous year?"
Example 2. Instead of asking if X operated an IBM PC computer, ask,
"What computer equipment did X use? For what purpose? With what
software? How many hours a day did X use these?"
It is also suggested that you ask the employer why the candidate left.
A problem which occurs with increasing frequency is simply obtaining any
useful information from other employers. The letter of consent noted
previously may help. Another approach that sometimes works is to appeal
to the reference giver as a citizen. For example, when trying to find
out if the candidate has operated equipment safely, you could stress
that the job entails operating equipment on public roads or around the
public, and ask the reference giver if s/he wants the candidate
operating such equipment around the public. For an accountant candidate,
you might ask if the person contacted would be comfortable with the
quality of the candidate's work in computing that person's tax bill.
- NEGATIVE RESULTS FROM
If the results of a reference check appear
negative, you may want to check more references. Make sure you get the
additional references to speak to the major points made by the negative
reference. Also check the reference's credibility. If some of the
positive references know the negative reference (especially if from the
same organization), ask if they know of a problem between the employee
and the negative reference.
Never reveal the negative reference directly or specifically, as this may
create a problem and a liability.
- DOCUMENTING INFORMATION PROVIDED THROUGH REFERENCE CHECKS
You should keep notes as to the questions you asked and the information you obtained in doing reference checks. Make sure that your notes are consistent with the guidelines regarding non-discriminatory inquiries (page 2). It is recommended that you keep such notes for a period of one year.
- REFERENCE FROM AN EVASIVE
If they don't return your repeated phone calls, you may write a brief
letter such as the following:
Dear Mr. Smith:
I've been trying to reach you in connection with a reference for Ms. Sally
Jones, who had been in your employment.
We are considering Ms. Jones, along with two other people, but since we
consider her work record with your firm to be highly significant, we
cannot consider her further unless we can speak to you.
I'd appreciate a call from you regarding this matter. I'll call you again
in several days, if I don't hear from you.
cc: Ms. Sally Jones
Send a copy to the candidate to encourage the reference to respond.
- "SIGNALS" TO WATCH FOR IN RESPONSES TO QUESTIONS
- Exaggeration and broad
generalizations. Get them to explain and ask for examples.
- Hesitation in responding.
Response may be skirting the truth.
- Inflection in reference's
voice. Degree of sincerity.
- Body language.
Typically, your reference checking will occur by telephone. Visiting the
reference is ideal. The expression and gestures as the reference responds
to questions can be very revealing.
- GIVING REFERENCE INFORMATION
ON CURRENT OR FORMER EMPLOYEES
You have probably heard that employers have been
sued for providing untruthful negative information on former employees.
You may also have heard that employers have been sued for NOT providing
information on former employees who were fired for good cause. While it is
a policy of the County to allow managers to provide truthful references
for current and former employees, managers and supervisors must proceed
with caution in this area to avoid the potential for litigation. In the
event a reference is requested for unsatisfactory employees, managers and
supervisors are encouraged to contact the Employee Relations Division of
the Personnel Department regarding the content of the reference provided.
For all references, the following guidelines should be followed:
- ALWAYS verify who is calling
for a reference to ensure that it is a legitimate prospective
- ALWAYS find out what the
key duties and responsibilities of the position the current or former
employee is being considered for. This will help you relate pertinent
information based upon what you know about the individual in terms of the
job duties and demands. Only provide objective truthful
- If the reference check
comes from another County department, DO candidly discuss work
performance issues with the other County supervisor/manager. Be honest.
If you withhold negative information, you can expect the other department
to do the same to you if you are checking references with them. There is
no liability for sharing pertinent, truthful information with another
manager or supervisor within the County.
- Use the guidelines given in
Section I on conducting reference checks to respond to reference checks.
This will help to focus on work relevant experience and behavior, and
avoid identifying the employee as a member of a protected group or
expressing exaggerated opinions.
- When you provide reference
checks to other employers, document the information that you provided.
Keep notes as to your specific comments in case a dispute arises
regarding the information you provided. Make sure that your notes are
consistent with the guidelines regarding non-discriminatory inquiries
(page 2). It is recommended that you keep such notes for a period of one
- Contact the employee
who is the subject of the reference check. Request that they execute an
"Authorization for Release of Information/Waiver of Liability for
Employment References" (form PER3011) prior to releasing any
information. Please remember that use of this form is not a guarantee
against liability; you must also limit the information you provide to
objective information that is pertinent to the job. You may obtain a copy of a Release of
Information/Waiver of Liability for Employment References from the
individual conducting the reference check if s/he has already obtained one
from the subject of the reference check.
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