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Reference Checking: Get Real Information from Reference Checks

Reference Checking: Get Real Information from Reference Checks

By: Paul Falcone

Reference checks are fairly quick, easy, and painless to perform. So why is that so many employers don’t pursue this “low hanging fruit” when hiring new candidates? 

Some employers mistakenly believe that it’s unlawful to ask for references; that’s simply not true. Others fear that reference checking is a waste of time because former employers won’t reveal a candidate’s weaknesses or speak openly about an individual’s performance. Finally, many hiring managers simply don’t know where to start, so they base their hiring decision on the interview and their gut feelings afterwards.

Hiring a candidate without checking references is like having a loose cannon on the deck of your ship. After all, conducting an interview will simply give you the candidate’s side of the story. Who better than a previous supervisor to balance out that story and provide some insights from a third-party, managerial perspective? 

A Reference Check Strategy
There are a few simple steps that you need to follow when conducting references.  

1) If your company uses an employment application, include a line that asks for the names, titles, and phone numbers of past supervisors within each position field. Be sure that you limit references to past supervisors. You don’t want to speak with Johnny’s little league coach or peers (i.e., best friends).

To make this work, you’ve got to speak with your peers at the candidate’s former companies — those who could share relevant insights into the individual’s ability to accept constructive criticism, cope with stressful situations and confront problems head-on.

2) This step is critical: Shift the responsibility for “reference bridging” back to the candidate.  If you call a company cold and that employer hasn’t spoken to the candidate in four years, your call will be forwarded to the human resources department; they’ll only confirm the candidate’s dates of employment and last title held. 

However, if the candidates themselves reach out to their prior supervisors and re-establish their relationships with their former bosses, then there’s a much greater chance that several of those prior supervisors will be willing to speak with you. After all, many managers will be willing to “bend the rules” about not being allowed to provide references to third parties if they really liked the candidate and want to help that individual get ahead in his career.

Reference Questions to Ask
When speaking with the former manager, start by providing some insight about your company culture, your department’s challenges, as well as what you generally look for in successful new hires. 
Once that foundation is established, you can then begin to ask more open-ended questions regarding the individual’s performance. The call might sound something like this:

John (the candidate) said some very nice things about your leadership style and your ability to provide the appropriate amount structure and direction while he worked for you. I was hoping that, reciprocally, you could share some insights into his ability to excel in our company. Can I tell you a little bit about us first?  (Sure) 

Well, we’re a small, privately held company specializing in (give as detailed a description as you like), and our biggest challenge lies in . . . How do you feel John would fit into a company like ours in general?  

The ideal candidate that we’re looking for would be someone who could . . . Does that sound like a role John would excel at and be interested in?  

Now that you’ve explained your company background and challenges, your questions regarding the candidate’s individual strengths, weaknesses and accomplishments can be answered within a structural framework that’s tailored to your organization’s needs: 

What would you say makes John stand out among his peers?  

Are there any concrete accomplishments you’re aware of where John helped to increase revenues, decrease expenses, or increase efficiency? 

How would you grade John on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the highest?  (Why is he an 8?  What would make him a 10 in your mind?)

How would you grade John in terms of his ability to accept constructive criticism?  Listen actively? Communicate bad news? Ask for advance permission?  Hold himself accountable for his own performance?  

In terms of “weaknesses,” are there certain things we should be aware of so that we could give him additional support, especially in the first 90 days if he were to join us? 

Would you hire him back into your organization if the situation arose?

The goal is to identify the values that define your hiring process with former supervisors upfront. This will enable them to speak about the candidate’s track record, an excellent indicator of a candidate’s future potential.

Customize the questions to fit your needs and you’ll have an excellent tool to help you decide whether to bring the individual onboard; if you do, you’ll be positioned to develop that individual into a solid performer and long-term contributor.

What if an employer won’t speak with you?  Well, one “neutral reference” shouldn’t disqualify any candidate, but if no one from three of four prior companies (generally going back ten years) will speak with you, you might want to keep looking.  

Author Bio
Paul Falcone
is Vice President of Human Resources at a major Fortune 500 company. He is the author of several books including 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire, 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees, 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems and 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews.