How to navigate unsubstantiated claims when hiring

Daniel Jennings offers advice on keeping pupils, adults and schools safe amid social media-fuelled allegations against potential recruits

Daniel Jennings offers advice on keeping pupils, adults and schools safe amid social media-fuelled allegations against potential recruits

19 Mar 2024, 5:00

Unsubstantiated claims against potential job candidates can spread like wildfire, particularly with social media pouring oil on the flames. No one should be held back from a career in education by malicious claims, but safeguarding accusations are particularly inflammatory.

Unverified or anonymous claims leave schools in tension; with such claims difficult to pursue but impossible to ignore. So how can schools navigate such unsubstantiated claims and get to the truth?

In the first instance, key decision-makers in education settings should always take any potential claims seriously, even if they appear unsubstantiated. This is because schools are unique in terms of the exposure of vulnerable individuals, including children and young adults, to potential harm.

Past cases of sexual abuse claims demonstrate the dangers of overlooking critical information against potential candidates. In many of these cases, rumours or unproven claims were never investigated at all.

This is not to say that schools should act on baseless rumours. But they should pay attention to these unproven claims and be thorough throughout the hiring process to ensure that all relevant information is properly considered. Indeed, they may be able to easily dismiss unsubstantiated allegations after a fairly brief process.

One of the best ways for school leaders to navigate unsubstantiated claims when hiring potential candidates is by setting clear eligibility criteria and parameters at the outset. It is important to identify the qualities sought, matters that might cause concern and understand the school’s policies around safeguarding, for example. If a candidate fails to meet any of these criteria, it could well signal a potential problem.

Another way to understand the truth in the midst of unsubstantiated claims is to request detailed references from former employers. A referee has two responsibilities: to the candidate and the potential employer. They must ensure that the statement is truthful, precise and fair. If a reference is too brief and lacks detail, school leaders should inquire as to why. If the school discovers any concerns, they must not hesitate to dig deeper and ask more questions.

Such claims difficult to pursue but impossible to ignore

It is additionally important to use specific questioning techniques to assess the validity of unsubstantiated claims made against potential job candidates. In situations where employers may not be legally required to provide references, a refusal to do so by a candidate’s previous employer could be an indicator of potential problems.

If school leaders have concerns but are not sure of the questions to ask or how to address them, it is advisable to seek professional guidance. Ultimately, headteachers and governors are not often trained or experienced to handle the more complex or delicate of these scenarios and may require third-party support from a solicitor.

Achieving the right outcome is crucial, but avoiding problems in the process is equally important. Therefore, decision-makers must not shy away from asking the necessary questions.

As a school leader or a key decision maker, it is essential to carefully examine any information you receive and assess the weight to give to it. This includes verifying whether the person in question has been thoroughly investigated, if there are any witnesses or statements that have been accurately recorded and whether the appropriate procedures were followed.

Moreover, it is critical to ascertain whether the individual in question was given a fair chance to present their side of the story. As this latter requirement is a subjective matter, if school leaders have doubts about whether hiring the candidate is safe, seeking advice can be helpful.

If school leaders go ahead with the hiring process in spite of a claim, then it is important for schools to have a strategy in place on how they will handle the situation if any issues or questions from concerned staff or parents arise. The individual and the organisation will need some self-protection. This should be considered from the beginning of the hiring process.

Overall, it is crucial for school leaders and key decision-makers to fully understand any concerns or unsubstantiated claims and seek professional advice if necessary. By taking these steps, schools can minimise potential risks and create a safe and supportive environment for everyone involved.

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