Checking it out: Reference checks are really important.

Pamela Weaver
Pamela Weaver

You hire people, not machines. The candidate with the best technical skills could turn out to be a destructive team-wrecker. Best you do reference checks before you make the offer…

A friend was offered a job at a global IT company before they’d even left the building after their interview. The recruiter who’d set everything up called and told them they could have the role. My friend accepted the offer.

Fast forward five months and the recruiter phoned again. This time to ask them to re-send them their reference contact details. No, they hadn’t spoken to any of them. Yes, they knew my friend passed their probationary period, that’s why they called; to claim their fee, they needed to fill some gaps.

By now, my friend knew a couple of things she didn’t when she joined the company:

  • She was hired quickly because the person she was set to replace was so incompetent, they’d reached desperation point.
  • Nobody had checked the incompetent colleague’s references.

What she also knew was that the incompetent colleague was a source of division and toxicity in an otherwise happy team. But because the manager had slipped up on both a reference and work portfolio check, the team had an underperformer while the boss worked hard to hide his mistake.

That one bad hire turned out to be a direct cause of several key team members leaving. Meanwhile, further costs arose – both from a morale and a financial perspective – as remaining team members variously had to re-do work or contract it out when pressed for time. A few discreet enquiries by my friend turned up a lot of negative reviews. All of them along the “very unpleasant to deal with” lines.

That was probably the most expensive phone call my friend’s manager never made.

No one really enjoys the reference check. You’ve fallen in love with a candidate who looks perfect on paper and did well at interview. So that niggling pause before their nominated referees answer a question about culture fit or productivity can be unwelcome when you’ve already talked yourself into a decision. Go ahead, by all means, but remember you can work around a lower-than-expected skillset easier than a bad attitude or team wrecker.

When it’s time to make the call, instead of asking questions geared towards confirming your bias, take the time to listen for the pauses, the hesitations – and even the outright negative comments. A candidate who can’t perform the necessary due diligence when selecting their own referees not only reveals poor planning skills but also a lack of self-knowledge that should raise alarm bells on the interpersonal skills front.

To wrap up, here’s a top five reference checklist:

  • Go off-list:

    No sane candidate will put you in touch with someone who will speak negatively about them. Yes, talk to their nominated referees but, particularly for senior hires, go off list and look for contacts within the broader organisation or community.

  • Balance negativity:

    In cases where you receive niggling as opposed to serious negative comments, frame your questions in such a way as to deflect the onus for answering hard questions from the referee, e.g. “Here’s what some of the other referees I contacted about John had to say” or “Mary’s referees tell me she’s a good individual performer but in team situations, she performs better if she’s not in a leadership role – have you found that to be the case with her?”

  • Ask the candidate:

    Straight up – ask the candidate why they’ve chosen those specific referees. Apart from the fact that it could give deeper insight into what their workplace relationships are like, the things people don’t tell you are often as revealing as the things they do – for example, someone may not have listed their boss, but another key senior colleague; you may decide to give their former boss a call too.

  • Don’t ask for confirmation:

    You already know what you like about the candidate. Ask referees questions that probe areas you might have missed. Ask if there are areas you could coach the candidate to improve on. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing – all of us have room for improvement.

  • Ask a friend:

    An independent opinion from a suitably qualified person seldom does anyone any harm. Enlist the help of a colleague to make a call or two. Apart from the fact that they might find it easier to ask the hard questions, you’d be surprised what kind of information someone not directly connected with the situation can glean.

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