References checking is often considered in our business community as a standard practice which adds a considerable value to the candidate hiring decision-taking process. There is a common wisdom that leads one to believe that references are of considerable value and that employers are justified in placing a considerable confidence in them. In our experience, however, much of the effort that goes into reference checking is misplaced and the vast majority of references add nothing to the quality of the selection decision. Yet, properly and competently carried out, reference checking could be an essential part of the overall selection process.
References should never, of course, be taken up without the candidate´s express permission. Effective reference checking is a time-consuming process and, in practical terms, can only be carried out on the preferred candidate or, exceptionally, on the two final candidates when the final choice may actually depend on the references check. A critical question is whether references should be taken before or after an offer has been made. If they are taken up afterwards, any offer would obviously be subject to satisfactory references.
The only valid employment references are by individuals with first-hand detailed knowledge of the candidate´s work. The practice of asking the candidate for one or two referees who are friends or colleagues is, normally, a waste of time. Candidates are hardly likely to nominate someone who they suspect will provide a poor reference. Moreover, such referees are rarely likely to be knowledgeable about the individual´s current performance. You can never be sure how much careful thought will be given to replying to a query and, furthermore, you have no means of assessing the referee´s knowledge or judgement.
In checking any reference, the first requirement is to confirm factual information. Employment dates, salary, benefits, current position and key responsibilities should be checked. Many candidates exaggerate their position and previous experience.
It is with key managerial appointments or in any job where the ability to achieve results is essential, that effective reference checking becomes vital. The starting point for this has to be the candidate´s direct line boss in previous relevant positions (and, if possible and at the right time, in current job).
The ideal process would be to interview the referee about the performance of the person concerned. This requires all the skill of interviewing: asking the right questions, pressing to get to the key issues, evaluating the responses and judging the value of what is said. The interviewer has to discern the truth, particularly when differences in key aspects are revealed between what the candidate has referred and what the referee says. In those cases where management style can be important, it is also worthwhile talking to an individual´s former subordinates. A candidate who says the right things at interview about openness, how to handle difficult situations or what makes a good manager may have just read the right books or articles on the subject. Talking to subordinates who may have suffered his/her real management style may give a whole different picture. Again, interviewing and interpreting skills are essential if the real unbiased situation is to be revealed.
It follows that effective reference checking requires a discussion and this can’t be done in writing. However, it may just not be possible to do other than rely on a written reference. Accurate interpretation of what has been written, then, becomes vital; particularly if the referee is skilled in the art of producing a “neutral” reference. An example of a neutral reference that says everything without a single negative word is something like:
“Mr García was employed by this company between January 2017 and May 2018 as Purchasing Analyst. We found him to be an average employee of average ability and potential. We wish him well in his new career”.
That hardly needs much interpretation. Most negative references are written with a great deal more subtlety. One key signal here may be the statement: “If I can provide you with any further information, do not hesitate to contact me by phone”. Of course, it may be just a routine, formal remark. However, more often than not, it may be read as “There is something I do not want to put in writing, and you´d do well to call me and find out”.
Two essential questions should always be put to a referee: “Would you re-employ this person?” and “Do you know any reason why I should not employ him or her?” The candid answers to these two questions would provide most of the key information needed to draw up a conclusion on about the interest of proceeding with the hiring of the candidate.
Proper reference checking is an essential part of the recruitment process. It requires considerable skill to carry out effectively, but hiring a new employee, especially for a high contribution position, is about risk and proper reference checking is the best way of reducing that risk. So, it is definitely worth the time and the effort to do it (and to do it well!)
Article written by Carlos Camara, CFR Global Executive Search Spain
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