Reliable Reference Checking

Job References

We’ve been talking a lot about bad hires recently – but with good reason: reports have shown that many companies are suffering a loss of business due to bad hires. This trend suggests that employers want to increase the quality of their hires, whilst reviewing the validity of their recruitment processes.

As recruiters, we all know the importance of screening, interviewing and testing. However, if bad hires are still getting through the net, what else can be done? Before answering that, let’s look at the easy option: partnering with an online recruitment agency. If you’ve always done your recruitment in-house, there are a few things you may be thinking: a) why would I put my recruitment in someone else’s hands? And b) why would I spend extortionate amounts of money on something I can do myself?

Both valid questions, especially for those who haven’t used an online recruitment service before. However, the reasons for doing so are equally as valid. First, partnering with the right online recruitment agency gives you access to a wider pool of talent, so your chance of finding better quality hires increases vastly. Secondly, an online recruitment service needn’t cost much money. In fact, services like ours start at a flat rate of £599 and provide the entire recruitment service: job ads, sourcing, screening and shortlisting. We even offer a free assessment of your recruitment practice. Low-cost, fixed fee recruitment means you can keep track of your cost per hire without compromising quality. Thirdly, you benefit from all the marketplace knowledge and recruitment advice amassed from our years of experience.

In the meantime, let’s look at bridging that anomalous gap in the hiring process: reference checking. References, though much neglected nowadays, are a valuable way to weed out bad hires. Ultimately, references help improve the quality and efficiency of the selection decision.
References have been given a bad name. Supposedly, previous employers are not allowed to give a bad reference. Moreover, we live in litigious times, with past employers less inclined to provide truthful performance and character information in references. Indeed, referees will often provide ‘safe’ and ‘unarguable’ references that contain benign information, including dates of employment, salary, job title, etc. The fact is, employers are sceptical of giving truthful feedback for fear of reprisal, so references are often positive or neutral, never negative.

As business owners and recruiters, that puts us in a bind. However, there are a few tips on how to get the most from your reference checks.

Abide the legal process

First, you need to be aware of the laws that govern reference checking. Ensure your processes are in line with national and local labour laws, so your company is legally compliant.

Asking for references

For entry, junior and mid-level candidates, ask for at least two references. For senior level (management, directors, etc), ask for at least four. Check all the provided referees, because the more you check, the more likely you are to find consistent and reliable trends. These findings should be in line with your own discoveries found during the interview process.

Ideal referees

Ideal reference providers should be people who managed candidates whilst they were employed at a company. This will include team leaders, line managers or even a director. Steer clear of peers and colleagues; they will not be reliable sources and won’t give accurate information on performance and results.

Probe the candidate

Not often done during the interview process, but an invaluable technique: ask the candidate question about the referees they have provided.

Why have you selected each referee?

What information do you think we will receive?

What will your references say about your work ethic and performance?

What will they say about your focus and commitment?

Are you confident about the results you produced for your referees?

Plus anything else that is particularly relevant to the job role, company or industry.

This is a particularly effective stealth technique. If candidates are indeed bad hires, they will now be concerned about any weaknesses that their referees may reveal. To combat this, candidates may try to intercept any negative feedback by giving their perspectives on any weaknesses. It’s a sure-fire way to discover any negative qualities without relying solely on often-dubious references.

Talk to the referee

Of course, we don’t expect (or recommend) recruiters to forgo a proper reference check in favour of the last tip – far from it. Instead, pick up the phone and chat to the referees. This approach is far more off-the-record and may encourage previous employers to be more frank with you.

Ask the appropriate head of department to make the call, especially if the referee is their counterpart. The head of department may be able to talk more engagingly about the type of work involved and make small talk about the industry, helping to strike up rapport and encouraging the referee to feel more comfortable and candid.

All questions should be focused on any concerns or apprehensions you have about the candidate, including experience, work ethic and relevant skills. To begin, do some fundamental fact checking, which will ease the referee into conversation. Tell him or her about the culture of your business and the vacancy, helping to contextualise the conversation around your needs.

Tougher questions should come last, which should really get to the core of what you need to know. For instance:

Do you know of any shortcomings that may affect the candidate’s suitability for the role?

On paper, the candidate is very talented. Did you encourage them to stay? If not, why not?

What style of leadership/management helps the candidate to perform optimally?

If the situation came about, would you rehire the candidate?

This is merely a handful of possible questions to ask. There will no doubt be some specific questions or facts (based on the candidate’s CV claims or interview answers) which you will want to ask about.