A reference check can be a phenomenal tool to help avoid hiring someone that may be hiding something during the interview process. References can be used before an offer is made to provide higher level detail on two (or more) top tier candidates to give more information before an offer is made. They may also be used as a part of a full background check to add an extra layer of confidence beyond confirming employment, education, and lack of criminal history. When done properly, reference checks provide confirmation of a candidate’s skill sets, achievements, and work ethic (making sure they match both their CV and their interviews). When done without structure, they can instill a false sense of comfort.
Reference checks can be quite tricky. By nature, references tend to be very positive. At the end of the day, a candidate is referring people whom they expect to sing their praises. It is very easy to ask vanilla questions and receive vanilla responses regarding past performance. However, by following these best practices, there are tricks and tools that hiring managers can use to sleep better at night, knowing that their next rock-star is on the way.
The Hiring Manager Should Conduct the Reference Checks
Sure, hiring managers are busy running their department, managing people, and trying to sneak in some time to hire the next person on their team. There can be a case made that they just don’t have the time to perform reference checks with all of their many duties pulling them in other directions. Sometimes they will past the duties onto HR or their agency recruiter, only wanting to be notified if something drastically negative comes from the call(s). However, if you consider the time and money that it takes to onboard and train someone that isn’t going to work out, it is fair to say that two to three 10 minute phone calls are well worth the time. Vetting a candidate is important, but unfortunately, some of the best interviewers are not top performers. The 20-30 minutes that it takes to check references can be well worth the peace of mind and be a huge time saver in the future. Furthermore, hiring managers can be strategic with their Q&A ensuring that all of their questions or concerns are being addressed.
Make Sure the Provided References Will Be Able to Provide the Information You Want
Most professional references will come from a past manager, colleague, client, or someone else who can attest to the quality of work and behavior of the candidate.
It is important to figure out whose opinions matter most when checking references. Ask the candidate to provide the best match for your criteria.
A general rule of thumb is to always ask for current or previous supervisors, especially if the hiring manager is the one conducting the calls. When a hiring manager calls a past supervisor they immediately have something in common which leads to advantages. First, it is easier to gain one another’s trust as they sit in similar roles, or least, have somewhat similar responsibilities…hiring talent. Second, the supervisor will be able to better address the hiring manager’s concerns, with the underlying assumption that the supervisor is also involved in hiring and vets for certain qualities when hiring on his or her team.
If you are hiring someone that will be responsible for direct reports, ask to speak to one or two of their previous direct reports. A supervisor can make or break a team so making sure people like working underneath them is extremely important. Time and time again I have seen top talent driven off from a terrible manager who interviewed well, but was not a great leader. Don’t make the same mistake.
If you are hiring someone who is client facing, ask to talk to one of their clients and see how satisfied they were with the relationship. At the end of the day, anyone who is client facing is supposed to be leaving a positive impression with their end user. A happy client is a repeat client.
Checking colleague level references can be important as well, but it is usually hard to get a full understanding of the candidate’s achievements. Most colleague level references will say nothing but great things as it makes for an easier call. They also tend to have a narrower idea of performance and are less able to answer specific questions about past achievements. Not to mention, colleague level references tend see themselves as being equal as their colleagues and will project the positive feelings that they have of themselves to their colleagues. No one wants to admit that they are working in a similar capacity to group of bottom-level performers as it would discredit their professional experience.
Something else to remember: sometimes HR has a policy that does not allow supervisors to answer any reference check questions outside of confirming employment dates and titles. If this is the case, ask the candidate to provide another reference.
Understand Who It Is You Are Speaking With
Start the conversation by getting a better understanding of who the reference is, including their current company, title, how long they worked with the candidate and in what capacity. The best references come from those who have worked with the candidate the longest and who are the most recent. Since many companies will conduct reference checks before a candidate gives notice, you may not be able to talk to their previous manager which is not uncommon. However, you may be able to talk to a previous manager that is no longer with the company or a supervisor from a past company. The more background data you collect, the better idea of whose perceptions you are questioning.
Identify What Information You Want to Walk Away Knowing
Have a plan of attack when reaching out to references. Identify what knowledge you want to gather prior to making the call and create a plan on how to extract that information. If your two main concerns about the candidate are their ability to work independently along with their technical skills then ask questions regarding their experience working on projects by themselves along with what skill set they would be able to mentor more junior level colleagues. Make a list of the information that you want, then start to come up with questions that will lead to appropriate responses. It is highly suggested to have a list of questions written down to keep your conversation on track. There is nothing worse than hanging up just to realize that you forgot to ask something that was really important going into the call.
Ask the Right Questions to Avoid Generic Responses and Encourage Candid Answers
With the human tendency to provide nothing but positive feedback, how do you get references to feed you the unfiltered truth?
The first step is to gain their trust. Assure them the conversation is completely confidential. Second, you need to warm them up. Always start by talking about something positive and talking about the industry. A good tactic is to ask the same type of questions that you asked the candidate during the interview as it will show that you are both industry professionals and it will set the tone for the rest of the call. Third, phrase your questions in a way that don’t allow for generic positive responses. Avoid questions that allow the reference to answer with a couple of words, but instead, need to be explained.
Do Not Accept (Just) Written Offer Letters
Written reference letters can be extremely persuasive, especially when they are written by someone whose opinions carry a lot of weight. The challenge is that the letter is only a snapshot taken at a specific time which doesn’t mean that their performance could have gone downhill since.
Written reference letters can also be used for mangers trying to do the candidate a favor even though they really didn’t perform. I have seen many people who were terminated, only to find their supervisor writing a reference out of guilt. This is especially true with newer managers who are still uncomfortable letting their team members go. To take this one step further, some managers will provide a written reference so they won’t be called for a reference check. There is nothing more awkward than checking a reference of someone who did not perform well. The reference has to either lie and stay positive or have that uncomfortable conversation of throwing the candidate under the bus. The written reference makes for an easier way out.
Be Wary of Red Flags
When conducting a reference check you need to decide what information is important to you and your team. Some previous strengths or weaknesses may not relate to the position you are considering the candidate for and each question (and answer) needs to hold a certain amount of weight in your decision making process. That being said, there are a list of red flags that should at least be taken into consideration if they come up during the reference check process.
The best indication of future behavior is past behavior. Humans tend to be extremely consistent in their behaviors. If you check three references, all of which are telling you to hire this candidate immediately, there are probably good reasons to do so. On the flip side, no one is perfect and you need to figure out if your team is able to work on areas for improvement. Generally, it is easier to take a motivated employee and teach them rather than hire an expert that lacks drive. As they say, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. If the horse isn’t drinking you just need to find a thirstier horse.
The Headhunter Guide is RECRUITER WRITTEN'S way to provide insider's knowledge to candidates and employers alike. Enjoy!