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Tightlips

Tightlips

Information technology managers and CIOs say that more than ever, fear of litigation is preventing them from giving out much, if any, detail on former employees who require references in order to secure new jobs.

Information technology managers and CIOs say that more than ever, fear of litigation is preventing them from giving out much, if any, detail on former employees who require references in order to secure new jobs. For several years now, companies that are fearful of lawsuits and that have official corporate policies in place have typically provided as little information as possible. Recruiters and IT executives say it's difficult to get more than the start date, the end date and possibly the employee's title through official corporate channels. Some employers have even automated the reference process, says Andy Baker, human resources manager for IT recruiting at Allstate Corp. in Northbrook, Ill. "Certain companies make us dial a specific phone number and key in the person's name or code number to gain the dates of employment and nothing else," he says.

Corporate policy is one thing, but harsh reality is another. Hiring managers today have pressing concerns -- such as system security and the cost of replacing less-than-stellar performers -- that make it necessary for them to dig deeper for more information about prospective IT talent.

Increasingly, IT executives and corporate HR departments are turning to alternate, unofficial channels to screen the hundreds of thousands of IT workers who have been laid off nationwide and are available for hire. Some use the old, informal insider's network, chatting with folks at the job candidate's last place of employment to find out more about what he was really like as an employee.

Tasos Tsolakis, vice president of global technology operations at Global Exchange Services Inc. (GXS) in Gaithersburg, Md., says that when he needs to get the lowdown on a person he's considering for a job, he calls someone at the company where that person works. "It's pretty common for local IT managers to know other local IT people," Tsolakis says.

Other hiring managers use a combination of methods, such as conducting several rounds of in-depth technical interviews and testing candidates for their technical skills.

"Delta Technology uses a multiple-hurdle hiring approach, including third-party background checks as well as traditional and skill-based interviews," says Curtis Robb, CIO at Delta Air Lines Inc. in Atlanta. "This allows us to view candidates from a broad perspective, ensuring they possess the knowledge, skills and abilities required for the job."

Allstate receives an average of 600 electronic résumés a day, or up to 25,000 per month, and stores them in an internal, Web-based database. The company uses it to conduct searches using specific criteria, such as skills, programming languages and platform experience, to collect a manageable pool of job candidates. Human resources then e-mails to each candidate a customized employment application that's designed to gather general information and specific experience-related details. "Based on the response to the e-mailed form, we hone down our list to a few targeted candidates," Baker says.

The next step is a phone interview to gather even more details, such as a candidate's adaptability, teamwork capabilities and flexibility. When the number of candidates is down to two or three, Baker conducts on-site interviews and collects information that he then gives to a third-party background-checking firm for verification of educational information and criminal history. "We also always ask permission from job seekers to check references in our online application," he says.

Outsource Your Screening

Third-party reference-checking and online database companies are doing brisk business these days, collecting personal information and delivering it for a fee to corporate employers. Industry analysts say pre-employment screening, made easier and cheaper via the Web, has been on the rise for the past several years. Companies such as ChoicePoint Inc. in Alpharetta, Ga., and The First American Corp. in Santa Ana, Calif., can verify identities and check details such as criminal records, automobile driving histories, former addresses, education and previous employment records. A December 2002 survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va., found that more than one quarter of IT managers agree that there has been greater screening of job candidates in the past year.

Dara Herbst, president of Certified Reference Checking Co. in St. Louis, says the biggest challenge for companies hiring IT workers is gauging the accuracy of each job candidate's technical skills. In some cases, it's difficult to gain verifiable references -- especially from dot-com companies that have gone out of business. Herbst and her father, Edward C. Andler, with David Sears, wrote the second edition of The Complete Reference Checking Handbook: The Proven (and Legal Way) to Prevent Hiring Mistakes (Amacom Books, 2003).

"Ask for verifiable information from the job candidate, such as a date of birth or Social Security number," says Herbst. Although it's illegal to force job applicants to provide such information on job application forms, it's vital to reference-checking, she says.

Red flags should pop up if a job candidate is unwilling or unable to supply verifiable information, such as a date of birth and employer references, Herbst says. While it's illegal to request date of birth on employment applications, this information is considered vital to verifying education and other details on a job candidate's résumé. Candidates may balk at first, but Herbst says most understand why this information must be collected.

Several people interviewed for this story said it's not wise to judge the large pool of IT job seekers as among the bottom 10 percent of performers, even though many companies have taken opportunities to cut poor performers. "Before, (GXS) had a policy that you (fired or laid off) 10 percent of your bottom talent. The reality is that in the past two years, we've moved a lot of top players, too," says Tsolakis. Most job cuts have occurred as GXS has moved an increasing amount of IT work offshore, he says.

CIOs and analysts say that despite corporate policies, they typically want to help job seekers who have earned their help. "If someone has performed well, possesses good skills and works hard, I'm always willing to serve as a personal reference," says Steve Schuckenbrock, former CIO at PepsiCo Inc. and Frito-Lay Inc. and now chief operations officer at The Feld Group, an IT consulting firm in Dallas.

When Schuckenbrock is doing the hiring, he asks job candidates for permission to speak with someone at their current or former employers. "If they can't supply that information, I know there's a problem."

But in the final analysis, there's no doubt that a catch-22 lurks in today's hiring process. Job candidates need to supply the names of former employers, yet those employers most likely can't give a reference because of company policy. So if you're a hiring manager, be tenacious and use what you can -- third-party screeners, multiple interviews and thorough skills testing -- to employ the best talent. -- Computerworld (US)

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