Too often, employers do not avail themselves of the recommendations made by former employers. One of the best tools to determine whether a candidate would be a good fit for your organization is to ask that candidate's former employer.
However, you do have to be careful in the types of questions that are asked. You can certainly ask if the former employer would recommend your candidate for the position they have applied for. You may also ask the former employer to describe the candidate's skills in regards to the employment relationship. You may also confirm length of employment.
What you do not want to ask are questions about the candidate's personal life, family, sexual orientation, health, issues with worker's compensation claims or benefits, issues with any possible prior litigation against the former employer, as well as any information pertaining to the candidate's religious, political or social views.
If you deny a candidate employment and that candidate does instigate a discrimination lawsuit, the less information you have in regards to the their personal life, health issues, as well as their views and prior history unrelated to their ability to perform the essential functions of the position offered the better for your defense of the matter. Now this is not to say, that you cannot look at your candidate and make a determination that they would not be a "good fit" within your organization. Obviously, personality can sometimes be more important that skills, depending on the job, for example, a sales position or even a receptionist's position.
I do recommend that you do some basic background research as to your candidate though. If your candidate is in their twenties or thirties in age, it is more than likely that they may have a Myspace page. That page may be very telling as to that candidate's personality. You can find out what music they listen to, what their favorite books are, what their favorite television shows are. You can also see who they are friends with in your organization and may even be able to read some of their blog posts.
Certainly, Myspace will not give you all the information as to someone personality. It can be a mirror into their lives. Obviously, this seems to contradict my previous comments on what you should know about your potential candidate. The difference is that you should not be asking a previous employer for potentially private information about a candidate, however, if that candidate has openly disclosed this information for the world to see on their Myspace page that is a completely different situation.
Obviously, an employer cannot discriminate in regards to the hiring of a potential candidate based upon a protected class such as race, national origin, religion, shade of skin color, age, sex, sexual orientation, pregnancy status, medical disability and or sometimes even English language skills according to case law interpreting Title VII (Civil Rights Act of 1964).
Questions pertaining to any of these protected classes would be highly improper during the interview process. As an employer interviewing a candidate you want to avoid question about religious holidays, what country they or their ancestors are from, how old the candidate is and whether they have any medical disabilities. And as difficult as it maybe, if your candidate does volunteer information about such topics, that information cannot be used to deny a position to them.
You would also be well advised to stay away from any questions dealing with drug use or drug dependency. Preemployment drug testing is still an emerging issue in the law. Even cities such as San Francisco have passed ordinances barring drug testing of certain employees or for certain reasons.
Therefore, it is highly recommended that before you decide to insert a pre-employment drug screening into you hiring process that you consult with a local attorney that is well versed in employment law. Asking someone to reveal their medical history as a condition to seeking employment is legally risky for the employer. Remember that your candidate may have to reveal their use of a doctor's proscribed medication that could show up in their test results, thus revealing an underlying serious medical condition.
It certainly appears that an employer's hands are cuffed when it comes to screening potential candidates. Realistically, that is certainly true when it comes into investigating more than their abilities to perform the job duties of the position they are applying for.
However, it is certainly recommended that you carefully review their resume for inconsistencies. Perhaps there is a gap in their resume where they did not appear to work for several years. Obviously you can inquire as to that issue. They may not have listed references. As stated earlier, you should talk to every reference listed. If for some reason your candidate did not list their last employer as a reference you can inquire as to why they were not listed as a reference.
It is also highly recommended that you require some sort of writing sample from your candidates in your employment advertisement. A writing sample can speak volumes about a potential candidate. You may also give the candidate several tests during the interview, i.e., typing tests, mathematical tests, spelling and grammar tests, as long as those tests will have a direct correlation to the job duties they will be performing. Further, those tests will have to be administered to each person interviewed.
Overall, good hiring processes will usually eliminate problem employees and your overall costs of "doing business." No employer wants to face litigation in a shrinking economy.