“People are not your most important asset. The right people are.”
- Jim Collins, American Author
The reference checking process is part and parcel of the hiring process these days. At times it can be a highly useful tool to weed out the best candidates. Other times it can be a path that is fraught with challenges and obstacles. Usually, the references that candidates provide might be a combination of professional and personal references. Sometimes it can turn out these references have a bias toward or against the candidate which can impair the information gathering process.
Another common obstacle in the reference checking process is that hiring managers have to deal with a lot of red tape. Company policies can often limit the salary or even the dates of service that the HR representative can reveal about a former employee. Fair to say that the process can be time-consuming and trying. However, there are still workarounds. In this blog, we will explore how you as a reference checker can creatively and compliantly gather said information. Having said that, let’s dive in shall we?
You might have heard of the term ‘backdoor references’. These are references that the candidate didn’t directly provide. Now, it is important to keep in mind that, while it’s not illegal to contact people not specifically named as a reference by the candidate, there are certain guidelines. One of the major guidelines is consent. For instance, candidates should have given permission for reference checking to be conducted in the first place. You can’t just go over their heads on that.
Reference checkers should also not reach out to anyone the candidate has expressly asked not to contact. This especially applies to current employers of the candidate, as this could create several different issues for them.
Another thing to note is that you can branch out your investigation. If you happen to speak to the former manager of the candidate, you can ask them as to who they might recommend you speak with for more insight. As long as the candidate has specifically asked you not to, you’re free to reach out to these contacts.
People Skills Matter in the Reference Checking Process
No matter how well you may know a potential reference or how deep you dig for information, people will be hesitant when it comes to candidates with a bit of a rock job history. In some cases people might be hesitant on account of how it may reflect on them if they are too critical; in this day and age, anything can become controversial. So, this is where some good old-fashioned people skills come in!
Include the Candidate in the Reference Checking Process
A neat trick of the trade or an approach rather, is one where you include the candidate in the reference checking process. In the initial interview, probe the candidate about potential strengths, weaknesses and areas for growth. Ask them what the previous manager would say if you were to call them up. Keep probing till you get answers that raise red flags. These red flags can then be brought up in the reference check with the previous employer. You would be surprised how forthcoming employers can be when discussing things about a candidate when they don’t have to bring it up first. The whole point of this process is so that you know what to look for in terms of red flags. Think of it as a roadmap to the investigation in a way.
"Hire character. Train skill."
- Peter Schutz, Former President of Porsche
Some Best Practices to Keep in Mind
A useful question that you can employ in your reference checking process, is to ask ex-employers how and when the candidate went above and beyond the call of duty. If they can immediately give you certain examples of how said candidate outperformed their responsibilities, then you know that this is a regular occurrence. If the reference struggles to recall such an event, it automatically tells you plenty about the work ethic of the candidate. Essentially, you need to be able to read between the lines and hear what they are not actively saying. They say silence speaks volumes, and in this case, it truly does.
Another best practice is to not accept general answers. The whole point of the reference checking process is to extract details that will help you make a more informed decision about the hire. So, if the reference does give you vague or general answers, ask them to elaborate.
You should also consider being attentive to the reference’s mannerisms. If they are eager to respond, that means they have a positive professional relationship with the candidate. On the other hand, if they are hesitant to speak to you, this could point to some underlying personal or professional issue that they had with the candidate. That’s a red flag that you should look into.
Lastly, strive for consistency. Keep the reference checking process going until all the information you have points to a similar consensus. This will give you a more accurate basis to get a sense of who the candidate is and what they are capable of.