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Reference-check essentials: Helping you master your hiring process

Jan. 1, 2019
Here are the essential steps dental practices should follow when checking references to avoid a fraudulent employee.

I recently received the following email from a dentist: “My embezzler passed my references check. I asked for six references, and she passed with flying colors... and then proceeded to rob me blind. I thought that maybe y’all needed to make a post about it, or SOMETHING, to the world of dentistry, because seriously, this is why we can’t trust references. When people fabricate deception like this, how can we trust anything, as employers, to be able to find someone worthy of hiring?”

The dentist was referring to a website that, for a fee, will supply false references to help someone pass reference checks. Here is what one such site claims:

“Paladin Deception Services is here to assist you in obtaining the fictitious reference, the little white lie, or the alibi that you need. Our agency can provide you with either male or female testimonials over the phone in the local area code that you require. We’re confidential, professional, innovative, and affordable. Most importantly, we keep it legal. Get the verification that you need!”

People with tainted pasts are aware that dental offices are great places to seek jobs because background checking done by most offices is superficial and easily defeated.

Here is what one (illiterate) convicted felon said about working in dental offices: “Dental game is great. No back round checks unless u work with kids. Great money easy hrs and its the same thing over and over.”

Here are two sobering statistics about the people who apply with you: one in four US adults has a criminal record,1 and some studies suggest that the prevalence of résumé falsification or enhancement exceeds 50%.2

To help you avoid a hiring mistake similar to that of the dentist who emailed me, here are some essential steps to follow when checking references:

1. Check photo identification (and some other institutionally issued card or ID) for every applicant you interview. One of the easiest ways to hide an unsavory past is to use someone else’s name.

2. You must speak with all former employers for the past five years. There is no value whatsoever to “character” references. What someone’s eighth-grade science teacher thinks about them isn’t of much utility.

3. Have a conversation with every single work reference listed for the past five years. Written reference letters, even if addressed personally to you, are worthless. Many people leaving a workplace “borrow” a supply of letterhead and envelopes so they can forge reference letters as needed. One study found that 17% of the employers surveyed had detected forged reference letters.3 You need to pick up the phone and call. No exceptions.

4. On the subject of calling, never call any phone number given to you by an applicant. You may end up speaking with a relative or friend pretending to be a former employer or a “deception” service like the one described earlier. Find phone numbers independently, and call those numbers to ensure you are speaking to the correct former employer.

5. Ensure that the office you are calling is a real business. If it is a dental office, the dentist will be registered with his or her state board. Another place you can check is, which has patient reviews for virtually every dental practice. If the work experience was with a nondental business, does it have a website? Another good place to check for legitimacy is Equifax, which maintains listings on almost every legitimate company (

6. When you call the office of a former employer, make sure you speak to the right person. If you are calling a dental office, speak to the practice owner first. He or she may hand you off to the office manager, but start with the dentist. For any nondental small business, identify and speak to the owner. Larger companies typically have HR departments that provide job reference information. Often, calling an HR department means that the information you obtain is limited, and you probably will not have the benefit of speaking with anybody who supervised your applicant, but make the call nonetheless.

7. You should ask the following questions to every former employer you speak with:

a. What were the start and end dates of employment? Please ask the former employer for these dates; do not provide them and ask for confirmation. Applicants trying to hide something will often manipulate employment dates.

b. Confirm the job titles for the positions held by the applicant. Job applicants often embellish their résumés—for example, if the former position was “receptionist,” on the résumé it becomes “office manager.”

c. Ask each former employer who the applicant worked for previously and subsequently. Often former employers do not know this information, but sometimes they do. Comparing what you learn with the résumé provided may uncover a discrepancy.

d. Ask who ended the employment relationship. This question may not be one that gets answered, but you may learn something valuable if it is.

e. You should always ask whether the organization or individual you are calling would rehire the applicant. If you are speaking with an HR department, you may get better results if you ask the question in the negative, i.e., “Is there any reason why this person is not eligible to be rehired by you?”

8. You must get a reference from an applicant’s current or most recent employer. Often an applicant will ask you not to contact his or her current employer because “my employer does not know that I am leaving.” This statement may be true, but alternatively, this may be a strategy to prevent you from calling a “current” employer only to find out that your applicant was fired from their employ two weeks ago. An applicant who asks you not to contact a current employer must be told that you do not hire anyone without speaking with the most recent employer. You may offer to defer this conversation, but you must make it clear that a discussion with the current employer must take place before you finalize an offer of employment.

While most applicants for the vacancy you need to fill are honest and will make excellent employees, there are those who need to be filtered out.

We see “serial embezzlers” all too frequently, and many of them would not have secured employment with the practices they stole from if those offices had known about and implemented the hiring strategies we have outlined here. Historically low unemployment rates and the perception that there is a shortage of qualified applicants for positions in dental offices put a great deal of pressure on practice owners to rush the hiring process. I urge you to resist the temptation to expedite your hiring process. The cost of hiring a rotten apple far exceeds the value of conducting a proper screening.


1. Fields G, Emshwiller JR. As arrest records rise, Americans find consequences can last a lifetime. The Wall Street Journal website. Published August 19, 2014. Accessed June 18, 2018.

2. Fisher A. Resume lies are on the rise. Fortune website. Published September 10, 2014. Accessed June 18, 2018.

3. Pratt S. Could YOU spot a fake employment reference? SocialTalent website. Published September 26, 2017. Accessed June 18, 2018.

David Harris, CFE, CPA, CMA, CFF, MBA, is an expert on embezzlement in dentistry. A certified public accountant, certified fraud examiner, and private investigator, Harris is the CEO of Prosperident, the world’s largest firm specializing in the investigation of financial crimes committed against dentists. Learn more at or by calling Prosperident at (888) 398-2327.

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