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The Tragic Live Shooting at WDBJ-TV Demonstrates Why Reference Checking Matters

Authored By W.Barry Nixon, SHRM- CMP

Although workplace violence is never easy to predict or prevent, reference checking is a step that can and should be taken to help reduce the risk of a tragic incidence.

The recent on-air shootings at WDBJ-TV that ended the lives of Alison Parker and Adam Ward illustrate the belief that in the case of workplace violence, it often is not preventable – but could it be?

To begin, it is questionable whether Vester Flanagan (a.k.a. Bryce Williams) should have been hired by the station in the first place. Even though the manager of WDBJ-TV stated that Flanagan’s background check yielded nothing but positive results, I question the type of screening that was conducted. Was it through an online internet service that is notoriously inaccurate due to missing data? Did the company run a criminal records check? (Surprisingly, most workplace violence incidents are not committed by people who have criminal records). Did they check his references? If so, did they dig a bit deeper and request to speak to an additional person who worked with the applicant? Secondary references will likely give more objective information since they were not chosen personally by the applicant.

It is understandable that saving time is crucial to every organization, but is it worth the expense to rush the valuable screening process? A good rule of thumb for any business is to complete at least three primary references and three secondary references before allowing a new hire to begin work. Too many organizations believe that it is too hard to get concrete information from previous employers and, therefore, forego the reference check. Or, perhaps the business doesn’t have the manpower in its HR department to conduct a thorough investigation. Regardless of the reason, it is important to implement a rule that enforces the importance of completing reference checks.

Another great idea is to use your network to contact individuals who have worked at the same company as the applicant. This off-the-record conversation with a trusted colleague can turn up some useful information, while paying off in dividends.

Consider this information regarding the Flanagan case:

Prior to his employment with WDBJ, Flanagan was with WTWC-TV in Florida. Two women who pointed out mistakes in Flanagan’s reporting were so verbally abused that they feared for their lives. It has been said that no one at the station shed a tear when he left. In all reality, had a direct connection been made during reference screening, perhaps knowledge of this information could have prevented a tragedy.

Flanagan later applied for a position with another media outlet in Huntsville, Ala., but was rejected after a half dozen references reported that Flanagan “was exceedingly difficult to work with” and that he even had gotten into a physical altercation at company Christmas party.

Another great tip comes from Mel Kleiman in his article, “Withholding employee references: It’s time to stop the insanity.” He recommends that organizations have departing employees sign a Reference Release Form, in which the employee chooses which work-related behaviors should be shared in future reference checks. Those who only choose positive attributes or none at all should raise a red flag.

Post By Barry Nixon (262 Posts)

W. Barry Nixon is the COO, the leading background screening information portal and online worldwide directory of professional background screening firms and Suppliers to the background screening industry. He co-authored the landmark book, Background Screening & Investigations: Managing Hiring Risk from the HR and Security Perspective. He also is the publisher of award winning newsletters, The Background Buzz and The Global Background Screener, and the author of the Background Checks column in PI Magazine.

In addition, Barry is a past recipient of the elite ‘Top 25 Influential People in Security’ by Security Magazine and past Co-Chair, International Committee for the National Association for Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS). He currently serves as a Global Ambassador for NAPBS.

You can contact Barry at 1-949-770-5264 or online at