Let’s get real.
Is it time to scrap the reference check?
Most execs pay lip service to checking references. Typically, they call a couple of the people provided by the candidate, ask a few softball questions and are done with it. Rarely will these brief conversations influence your final hiring decision.
If it doesn’t matter, then why do it?
Please understand, I’m a huge advocate of checking references. Getting former managers and colleagues to open up about a candidate will uncover valuable information and give you a good idea of how the candidate will perform in your organization.
Resumes and interviews are just glorified sales pitches.
Your candidates craft their message carefully, emphasizing their strengths and accomplishments and hiding their weaknesses and failures. Most candidates fudge the truth a bit. Some outright lie.
A thorough reference check will uncover these misrepresentations and give you an unvarnished and very accurate portrait of the candidate. Done right, reference checks are invaluable. Done poorly, they’re useless.
The bottom line: If you’re not eliminating some candidates and elevating others based on the reference check, you’re doing a bad job and making one or more of these mistakes:
Checking References Too Late in the Process
Do you wait until you’ve already made your pick before checking references? Sure, you can verify salary history, employment dates and perhaps speak with a former manager to ensure you haven’t made a horrible mistake.
But if this is your approach, understand that you’re not getting the full picture of the person you’re about to hire–or for that matter–the other strong candidates who you rejected.
The best time to contact references is after you have narrowed your choices down to two or three strong finalists. Perhaps, you’re leaning toward one candidate, but you’re concerned about whether they will fit your culture. Or, maybe you can’t decide between two candidates. Done properly, the reference check will give you the information you need to make the right decision.
Delegating the Reference Check
Do you hand off reference checks to the HR department because you feel uncomfortable doing them yourself or you don’t have the time?
Sorry. Reference checking is the hiring manager’s job. Not only will talking to former supervisors help you make the best possible hiring choice, it will give you insights on how to best lead the new hire.
If you’re using an outside recruiter, you might be tempted to outsource the reference check. Again, better to do it yourself, but if you’re going that route be sure the recruiter is checking references for everyone in the last group–not simply for your final selection.
Recruiters want to finalize the hire and the last thing they want to do is uncover a problem at the end of the process after you’ve already made your selection. They’re conflicted.
Check the Box Mentality
Many hiring managers make a half-hearted effort at checking references so they can “check the box,” but the reality is they feel it’s a needless bother because they are terrific at hiring based on interviews and their “gut feel.”
I’ve hired thousands of people as an entrepreneur and executive recruiter. I get “gut feels” all the time. While my instincts are often right, they’re not nearly as accurate as judgments made based on objective information and an accurate picture of the candidate’s work history.
Ask probing questions of the reference and listen carefully to what your top candidates’ former managers say about their strengths and weaknesses, accomplishments and working style. You may be surprised.
And anything less than a raving, glowing reference isn’t a very good reference. I’m looking to hear “You’d be an idiot not to hire her.”
No Backdoor References
Back-door references are people you find on your own–not the names provided by the candidate. Using LinkedIn, you can locate and get in touch with former managers, co-workers and industry associates.
Front-door references supplied by the candidate will expect your call and typically will speak positively about the person. That’s fine. Although by asking the right questions, you can still extract valuable information.
Back-door references, on the other hand, will feel less obliged to put a positive spin on their perceptions of the candidate. Their comments can be very revealing. And if many of them are unwilling to talk to you, that speaks volumes too.
To effectively compare candidates, you need to ask the same questions when speaking with references. Seems obvious, but too many hiring managers improvise and ask whatever pops into their minds.
Construct a list of questions that get to the heart of the candidates’ competencies, performance, work style & leadership ability. Ask references to quantify their assessment of the candidate and if they would hire them again.
Here’s a link to the questions I use.
Checking references the right way takes effort, time and a willingness to cold call people who may not want to talk to you.
I’ve been hung up on countless times.
I completely understand why a busy hiring manager who has already interviewed a number of candidates and settled on one or two favorites is reluctant to call several references for each of the finalists. It’s a pain.
But if that’s the case, you’re fooling yourself if you delegate the reference check or short-change the process by calling a single reference and believe you’ve done something that will contribute to a better hiring decision.
A thorough reference check can help you to make a better hiring decision and to manage the new hire more effectively.
But if you’re not invested in doing reference checks the right way, then stop wasting your time and ditch them altogether.
Just know that you’re taking a needless risk on the single-most important decision in your business: who to invite to be part of it.
Jeff Hyman is the author of Recruit Rockstars: The 10 Step Playbook to Find the Winners and Ignite Your Business. The Chief Talent Officer at Chicago-based Strong Suit Executive Search,
Hyman currently teaches the MBA course on recruiting at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and hosts the five-star Strong Suit Podcast. Jeff has been featured by Inc., Fortune, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, Bloomberg,
and other media outlets. Learn more at www.recruitrockstars.com
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