Reference Checks: Not an Archaic Exercise

Reference checks

It’s been an extensive and exhaustive search, but you’ve selected the finalists for your vacancy. You are told to do reference checks, an activity you believe to be a waste of time. However, a well-done reference check will garner additional information on the candidate’s performance, behavior, attitude and other traits that can make the hiring decision clearer and smoother.

It is a common belief that the references are the candidate’s agents and that they will only share positive information and withhold the negative, or that they will embellish the candidate’s performance. Another assumption is that you won’t gather meaningful information for fear of legal action. Both can happen, but don’t underestimate the quality of the information you can obtain if you speak with people who have known the candidate a long time and, if possible, in different settings. If you ask the right questions, listen to the answers, and ask appropriate follow up questions, you will be positioned to make a successful hire.

Plan to gather both factual and qualitative data. The factual data will help ferret out résumé and interview exaggerations, such as embellished skill sets and responsibilities, earned academic degrees or certifications, altered dates of employment, and supposed accomplishments. This information is indisputable and will highlight exaggerated or inaccurate information.

Qualitative data describes qualities or characteristics, such as management and communication style, interpersonal interactions, and approach to work. What are the preferred work culture and work habits? How do they like to be managed? How do they work in teams? The answers will help you determine if the candidate can thrive in your organization, or if they are likely to underperform given the demands of the job.

Ask your candidates to submit six to eight references from a variety of colleagues – managers, teammates, peers and direct reports. They may even include references that are external to the organization such as vendors or clients. Call three or four of references, more if there is only one candidate under consideration. Outlier information will quickly become evident and you will know which assessments are accurate and honest.

The best indicator of future performance is past performance. A previous employer is the best source of this information. Remember: the cost of replacing a poor hire can be as high as three to four times their salary. References only cost you some time.