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Professional References: Isn’t it Time to Start Sharing More Information?

The controversy surrounding professional references is nothing new.  In fact, the adage of a double-edged sword has never been more applicable.  Prospective employers are concerned with thorough due diligence when hiring new employees to protect those in their workplace, while former employers are concerned with not violating a person’s right to privacy.  If the new employer does not know of a previous problem, they risk hiring an incompetent or dishonest employee.  If the previous employer is too forthcoming, they risk being sued by their former employee.

The topic is coming up more and more frequently.  Steve Kirby, a former jazz professor at the University of Manitoba in Canada applied for a new position at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.  Part of Berklee’s pre-employment screening process included professional references and background checks.  As such, they reached out to the University of Manitoba, where they received positive references with regard to Mr. Kirby (although the Dean, Associate Dean, and the HR department at the University of Manitoba were unable to verify the source of such references).

Mr. Kirby had retired in June, following a six-month leave.  The leave was pending an internal investigation after a group of students at the University filed sexual harassment complaints against Mr. Kirby in February.  The investigation concluded that his conduct with a female student constituted “sexual harassment.”  However, neither the allegations nor the investigation’s results were disclosed during the reference checks.

The students at University of Manitoba were outraged that Mr. Kirby could get another teaching job and demanded greater transparency.  In response, representatives from the University of Manitoba claimed that they could not disclose a finding of sexual harassment due to privacy concerns and a lack of an applicant’s signed release.

This case also brought the attention of various women’s rights groups, who are demanding that privacy laws be re-evaluated.  Their argument is clear–teachers should not be able to leave one school when something happens and move to another, free to do the same thing to someone else.  The safety of students (and other workers, in other cases) must be a priority.

References and background checks also came up in another recent case where a former choir teacher was sentenced on October 4th to 20 years in prison for sexually abusing two young boys in Texas in 2012.  In that case, the mother of one of the boys, who had welcomed the teacher into their home for lessons and trusted him, as a part of the school system, claims that the Victoria Independent School District should never have hired him in the first place and that her son’s pain could have been avoided.

In 2010, the teacher, Jaime Cuellar, had been reprimanded by the Edinburg Independent School District for sending inappropriate text messages to students.  However, in hiring him, the Victoria School District claims that they were unaware of any inappropriate actions or disciplinary actions against him, as Mr. Cuellar passed their three-tiered screening process, including reference checks, criminal background checks, and fingerprint screening.

As these cases show, professional references can create potential for lawsuits and policy change.  Some are now advising employers not to say anything, but then issues like these arise, where a lack of communication is potentially placing innocent students, children, and co-workers at risk.  Where are their rights?  Isn’t it time we start sharing information to protect people in the workplace?

Hire Image offers a variety of reference checks, including education, employment, and professional, and all of our searches require authorization.  We understand the intricacies of this subject and will provide you with as much information as is allowable under the law to help guide your hiring decision.



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