Reference Checking: The Most Important Step in the Hiring Process

If you own a small business, where every hire counts, or if you are hiring someone for a key role, don’t get complacent after you’ve interviewed your ideal candidate. Too often, leaders set their minds on a candidate and delegate the rest of the hiring process as a pro forma exercise. Doing so is a mistake no company, these days, can afford.

Face it. The greatest indicator of what someone WILL do, is what they HAVE done. How do you get there? From real, authentic, engaged references. HR folks, this is why C-suite people often appear to recruit on the golf course - they know they can trust their weekly foursome buddy when he/she vouches for someone. It’s not so much a “Good Ol’ Boy” network as a “History of Shared Accountability and Reliability” network. The problem with such a network is that it may not encompass information on all the skill sets you require in your business.

Unless you’re hiring a talk-show host, there’s little chance that an interview, particularly a face-to-face, unstructured interview, like most CEOs prefer, will tell you much about how suited someone will be to the hard work associated with doing the job successfully over the long term. Though we tend to discount it, when in an interview setting, we all take in dozens of subconscious cues that have little, if anything, to do with how well someone will do the job. Execs are subject to the same subconscious prejudices as the rest of us. Consider the story about the CEO who turned down a very highly competent candidate because he had a “gut feeling” she wouldn’t work out. The HR leader spent considerable time and effort to determine what contributed to the “gut feeling”. The HR leader found the most mentioned factor was that she reminded him of his ex-wife and that she even wore the same perfume. When she returned for the second interview with the CEO and the executive team (wearing a different perfume), she was overwhelmingly selected. Fragrance is a strong and subtle influencer.

Realistic, carefully planned, job preview assessments are also great indicators of future success, but few companies take the time to plan those out all that well. So, for most companies, the best way to find out what the applicant is capable of, and what it’s like to actually work with them, is to check references. Yourself. Ruthlessly. With the same tenacity and drive that got you to your current job. Don’t delegate this process - unless you reward quality of hire over speed of hire. If that outside recruiter is getting paid or that internal recruiter is getting promoted primarily on how fast they fill the slot, once you have a serious candidate, you can bet the recruiter will focus on getting that person in the job, NOT thoroughly checking their qualifications.

Instead, keep an open mind. If you’re really excited about a candidate, great! That means you get to spend as much time really checking his or her references as you have spent in the hiring process up to now. Between resume review, phone screening, and interviewing, that’s probably a couple of hours. A couple of hours more of sleuthing, asking and thoughtfully getting real-life examples of the kinds of behaviors and smarts you’re seeking for the job can solidify and most likely ensure a successful hire. It is also important to solicit information about their weaknesses and ask the tough questions about how this person behaves in what might be difficult circumstances. Because when push comes to shove, this is the person you’ll be working with, not the applicant who put their best foot forward, for only an hour or two during the interview process.

Typical objections at this point?

  • It’s too hard.
  • I can’t get good clear references.
  • They’ll want me to talk to HR.
  • The reference might lie, anyway.
  • This seems sneaky.

My response? Tough. You get paid the big bucks because you’re awesome at prioritizing, having uncomfortable conversations, and using your best judgment for the good of the company. If this is an important job, you MUST either check the references yourself, or pick your MOST resourceful and tenacious HR manager to act as goalie on a potential bad hire. The HR Manager must be tasked with finding good reasons NOT to hire, and should be rewarded based solely on the long-term quality of hire. (See Jack Fitz-Enz’s work on how to measure this) If getting deep background takes a day, then it takes a day. If it takes a week, then it takes a week. And you may have to run interference against people who might pressure you both into “just hiring the candidate, already.”

Seriously? Of course it’s legal. You’re not going to be dumb enough, or unethical enough, to use any data other than information regarding the applicant’s performance in his or her previous job. You got the signed authorization to do a standard background check, and you know you’re not going to use anything from that inappropriately. And you’re going to consistently apply the same standards across all applicants. Information about any protected class background is irrelevant and anything about any previous complaints or lawsuits are really not your concern unless they were brought about by the candidate’s errors in work or judgment. You’re looking for ALL of the RIGHT information to make a great hire. Just as when an applicant shows up and you realize he or she is in a protected class, you ignore what’s not relevant to his or her ability to get the job done.

You can learn boatloads in the reference checking process, if you actually want to learn something. Here are some questions to ask yourself.

First, remember that this is basically a social intelligence test for the applicant. If he/she gave the name of a person who provides a bad reference, what does that say about their ability to read/communicate with people? Who did the applicant list as references, and from what jobs? What jobs don’t have references listed? What role did each of those references play, in relation to the applicant? How long does it take for the applicant to follow up with the correct contact information for his or her references? What does the applicant mean, he or she doesn’t know how to reach anyone from their last job willing/able to give a personal reference? Doesn’t that strike you as odd?

When you call, be friendly, and inquisitive. Get specifics, just like you would in an interview. Take notes. Be sure to clarify any points of confusion. Let the person know that any commentary will not be shared directly with the applicant, and follow through with your word.
Of course you’re going to call the references that the employee lists. When you do, do they seem prepared for your call? When you ask the open-ended question about how they know the candidate, do their answers line up with what the applicant said? Do they give actual examples, or just general comments? Is there any area that they seem to be qualifying the answer, or a little uncomfortable? Do any just flat not call you back, even after leaving a couple of messages?

Because you’re committed, and you have the signed background check authorization, you’re not just going to stop with the references that the applicant listed. That’s lazy. What does the applicant’s LinkedIn profile say? What can you learn from the recommendations, or lack thereof? Do the dates and titles pretty much line up with the resume? What can you glean about anyone else you should talk to about the applicant? (Note - in addition to LinkedIn, just do a basic Google search on the applicant’s name. Remember - you’re looking for information that could tell you how they might fit for the job at hand, not for their kegstand photos from college.

What happens when you call that company and ask for the employee? Who does the receptionist refer you to, and what does that person say about him or her? What happens when you call back and ask for the supervisor of the department that the person said they worked for? Is it the same name that the applicant said it was? Why or why not? Does anything at all not line up with the picture that the applicant painted, at any of his or her previous two or three jobs?

Many companies are taking a hard line about giving references and a manager or supervisor may not be willing to give a reference for reasons completely other than the employee lacking applicable or positive qualities. But HOW they tell you they are not able to talk to you can give you some serious clues. When someone answers, do they sound happy to hear about the applicant? Do they ask about the applicant, or do they seem hard pressed to even remember him or her? Do all the applicant’s references, at every job, give you the standard line about not being allowed to give personal references, even after you say that the applicant and your company really need just a few minutes, even in the evening if necessary?

If any factor in checking references doesn’t line up - in terms of honesty, character, or competence, follow up with the applicant. Without going into specifics, offer the applicant an opportunity to address your concerns. And if you can’t reconcile the facts, or discover that the applicant isn’t such a great fit after all, you have an obligation to your coworkers and the company to walk away.

If your intrepid and sleuthy HR professional got you some real data that saved your company a mismatch, give him or her a bonus. And give yourself a hand for dodging a bullet. The momentum of “getting someone hired” can have a life of it’s own, but your job is to hire the best possible person for the job, not someone who can make you comfortable for the hour it takes to interview them. Again, unless you’re hiring a talk show host. Or Cary Grant.  

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