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What Is The Value Of A Reference Check

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                                Your offer is contingent upon a successful reference check from this guy
     
We've seen that before. We've written it into our offer letters. We've worried about it briefly when we accept a position (what if they uncover something they don't like?). The reference check is considered a last line of defense by hiring authorities - the golden standard that can make or break a hiring decision. 

And yet, they're almost always a complete waste of time, useful only when the jobseeker has successfully pulled the wool over the eyes of each and every interviewer. I wonder sometimes if people who talk about references understand that a reference check bad enough to sink a candidate is only possible if you stink at interviewing

I've been writing about recruiting since 2004. In that time, I've heard hundreds of people extol the value of the reference check. I can't even imagine the fainting spells I'd see if I pitched this at an HR conference. That reference checks are common sense and mandatory is holy writ - and we'll pull your SPHR certification if you disagree! Do those people actually make reference calls themselves? For those who do, do they have a script, interview notes, or the courage to ask real questions that were brought up in the course of the interview? 

Clearly not. These are the questions we hear. "Were they employed?" "Was this their title?" "Would you hire them again?" "Were you their supervisor?" These are basic fact checking questions. Why don't we ask the tougher questions? 

"Why aren't they working for you anymore?" "Was there anyone better?" "Is it true that they left because they were never going to get your job?" "When they left, were you surprised?" "Did they have other offers when they accepted your position?" "What did their references say when you checked them?" "What is your vesting schedule for options?"

Now that would be a reference check!

Alas, it's not to be. While a few people have given me those kind of references over the years, the majority have been rote, plain, and filled with grunts of assent. Of course they are. The population we're looking to hire normally has some kind of longevity in their role, and are currently employed, which means that references are literally years old or decades old. Checking a reference from 2002 is just plain stupid. And yet, I've done it. It was policy. 

What About The Candidate Experience? 
Aren't we supposed to worry about candidate experience? I was reading a book on hiring systems, and the author said that we should ask for the spelling of the names of former managers because that's a great way to warn off candidates who will lie about their references. The author explicitly says that the fear of you calling managers who aren't their references is a good thing.

Here's the problem. Why are you trustworthy? Is there some magic that makes a 24 year old HR generalist a competent reference checker for a Senior Director of Operations? I remember taking a call one day from a "professional" reference checking organization. They were calling to verify employment for a current employee who had not yet given his notice. The hiring company intended to make an offer, but hadn't yet told the candidate. This kind of mistake happens on a regular basis, and yet candidates are supposed to trust you with the cell phone numbers of their current employer? 

Are They Worth It? 
I shouldn't be so hard on the system. I've had references that alerted me to fraud. I've had references who tried to deep-six a candidate (it didn't work - you can usually identify a bad manager). On occasion, references have actually sealed the deal, providing important information on how to manage a new hire or where they could use training.

Those are the exception - and that's for a guy who is very thorough in gathering references. But if you must do so - and that's almost all of us, there a few tips I can give you. 

  1. Be upfront what you're looking for. Direct supervisors, clients, or direct reports (when hiring a manager, get at least one direct report). 
  2. Once you get the references, have a call with the jobseeker to discuss them. Discuss each one, looking for questions to ask, ways to build rapport, and verifying information from earlier interviews. 
  3. Ask for references that you can't call. There are bad bosses. There are horrible companies. I'm more concerned with a candidate being honest with me than them having a perfect background. Having a hands-off list is a great way to dig through the information the candidate is hiding. Be firm, but polite about this. Your goal is to work with them, not filter them for living in the real word. 
  4. Don't ask, "would you hire them again?" Instead, ask them, "What should I be looking for when managing them?" That's a neutral question that allows savvy managers to tell you the truth. 

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