Employment Reference Checking – Why bother?

When it comes time to check references on a potential new hire, I have to admit that I have struggled in the past to find value in the process. This is because candidates only provide glowing references! (And why should they not??) No matter the clever questions I devise to uncover the truth about the new recruit, I continually find myself speaking with references who only sing the praises of my candidates. In fact, were you to believe the testimonies of the references with whom I speak, all the candidates that I have investigated routinely walk on water, leap tall buildings in single bounds, and have been known to fight fire-breathing dragons with one hand, while rescuing stranded kittens from tall trees with the other hand. (Do I sound doubtful?)

So, if we recognize that traditional employment referencing checking is inherently flawed (and yes, that is what I am really saying here), then why do it at all? Although many companies still include this step in their recruitment process as a matter of due diligence (or because no one ever bothered to question it), many others have ditched it entirely (for reasons: see above). The question is: “Does reference-checking really have value?”. To answer that, let’s look at human behaviour. The most recent results of a poll on About.com indicate 47% of respondents said they do or are willing to lie on their resume. Taken together with the expensive and difficult proposition of hiring not only a “bad fit” but a dishonest employee into your organization (and I have helped clients navigate through many of these painful situations), the question then becomes “is it worth the risk not to do the reference check on each hire?”.

As a business leader, only you can answer that question based on your own risk tolerance. Here is some insight that I have gained over the years that may help you decide:

Whom in your organization completes reference checks on new hires?

Is it HR or the Hiring Manager? HR often knows what kind of questions to ask to get the dirt on a candidate. However, the Hiring Manager may have specific insight on what behavioural characteristics would best fit his or her team environment. Often, a junior HR person is assigned to do the reference checking as this task is considered a tactical (rather than strategic) HR function. This is okay as long as the Junior HR person is trained to ask probing questions when appropriate to uncover information and not just take the respondent’s answers at face value.

The optimal solution is for HR and the Hiring Manager to consult prior to the reference checking process to agree on what areas to probe, and how that would best be handled. Then HR and the Hiring Manager should review the reference results to ensure they are both comfortable with the answers and there are no issues for follow up.

What questions should you ask?

Questions that I commonly ask references deal with the prospective employees’ strengths and areas of development. I ask the respondent to describe the situation and the behaviour they observed in the candidate so I can understand their answer in context. For instance, if checking on a Customer Service candidate, I might ask a former Manager “tell me about the most difficult customer interaction Sally had under your Supervision and how did she handle it?” This method often leads the respondent to provide more information on the candidate than would a traditional question such as say “how would you describe Sally’s customer service skills?”. The answer to my question has more value because it deals with a real situation versus the opinion of the respondent on a hypothetical or abstract question.

In addition, it is hard (although not impossible) for references to make up stories on the spot when you ask a question about an event that really happened. I also use this opportunity to cross-reference the information that the candidate has provided in the hiring interview with the information supplied by the references. For example, if Sally mentioned that she often worked extra hours to ensure that her job was completed, we could ask her prior Supervisor a question about what strategies Sally employed to ensure her work was completed on time. If the stories are inconsistent, then one or both might be consciously or subconsciously avoiding the truth and that is our clue that it’s time to probe further or at least proceed with caution.

What other pre-employment screening tools do you use?

I like to say that interviewing is like dating….you don’t really know what type of person your going to get until you hire (marry, cohabitate with) them. There is such a wealth of information available to help people prepare to be interviewed, that anyone with an internet connection and a mirror or a very tolerant and helpful BFF can become a skilled interviewee. To make matters worse, the people who score the lowest in job stability often have the most interviewing practice and will be an impressive interviewee – which does not necessarily mean they will be all that impressive on the job.

So, how do you distinguish a great interviewee from a great employee? You make sure that in addition to the personal interview and thorough reference checking (done by the right person and asking the right questions), you employ some kind of job-fit assessment. Commonly referred to as psychometric assessments, these tools are readily available, moderately cost effective and easy to administer on-line. They measure the candidate’s cognitive abilities, behavioural tendencies and job interests. The more advanced ones allow you to compare the candidates’ results against a benchmark based on other successful incumbents in the role to understand where the candidate may fall short of or exceed your requirements. This step may sound fancy, but it really is not. It’s just another way for you to get to know the person you plan to invite into your organization. We recommend that if you use this type of screening tool that the results never make up more than one-third of the basis for your hiring decision. In other words, all employment screening results (interview, references, testing) should factor equally into your hiring decision.

What about “Back-Door References”?

This is what I call references who you may know through your personal or professional network, but whom the candidate has not officially listed as an employment reference that you may contact. Some may disagree with me, but I say “go for it!”. If you know and trust someone that can give you some real insight into your prospective hire then use it. Just remember to evaluate what you hear from this contact in the context of every other screening tactic you have used. Don’t let one source make up your mind without investigating further. I worked with one GM that would ask references provided by the candidate if they could recommend others (not listed by the candidate) that he could speak with for an additional reference; in my opinion, that’s going just a bit too far and is bound to get back to your prospective hire.

At the end of the day, you do the best you can to get to know the person you plan to hire. Just like marriage, it doesn’t always work out. But it does not stop us from trying our best to hire the best we can find.

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