About those reference checks

How many times in your career have you been asked to provide references? Or be one for someone? My guess is plenty. Enough for you to take this seriously. Particularly, if you’re the employer/recruiter.

I, however, question the veracity of a reference check. Nobody seems to be giving anything but glowing references. Even if they were your boss who had fired you! Or worse — hates your guts! Why? Because it’s safe to give a 1 star former employee an 8 or a 9 than be responsible for their career. The referrer will thank you if he gets the job and you’ll feel good about yourself too although deep-down you know the new employers will figure it out anyway. (I know because I’ve done it myself! I don’t want to be responsible for someone’s livelihood. Let them live!)

It doesn’t make any sense! Why would you speak to a bunch of people that the candidate wants you to speak with? Are you expecting nothing but the honest truth from them? You can’t interrogate them (if you seriously like the candidate and want them to join). And if that’s how you roll, if you’re speaking to an average of 3 references for each candidate, are you not wasting at least 30 to 60 minutes of wasted time? And you have the nerve to even wonder why you aren’t able to get things done?

Of course, I’m not suggesting you should stop doing reference checks. But there’s ought to be method to the madness. I don’t see the point in doing this for positions below the senior management level. Recruiting higher level executives is a different ball game. You don’t ask for references (thank god, we aren’t that dumb) but invest significant time to investigate and research about their background. You also ask around within your circles for a better sense of the candidate’s personality and character. All this work helps you get a clearer picture. Almost.

In my opinion, one of the fallacies about reference checks is that we’re eventually dealing with people. Their opinion (just like mine) can be coloured, biased, and highly influenced by what they saw, experienced or heard from someone else. I don’t find that reliable at all! Yet, decisions are taken based on the feedback one gets from their “trusted sources” or their “inner circle.”

Yes, there are exceptions, like if someone was fired on account of professional misconduct or graver charges, they’re probably not a great fit for you. Besides the obvious, I would take feedback with a grain of salt. Why? Because it’s an individual’s perspective about a person. And if you speak to 10 people and observe a pattern of behaviour, that’s a red flag but it’s pivotal that you take the initiative to clarify what’s missing yourself

I believe a great way to go about recruiting the right candidates is to have the right systems and processes for selection in place. These will include behavioral and cognitive assessments, which I still think are grossly underused. Just as asking the right questions is during the interview process. I think employers can leverage their face-time with the candidates by structuring their interviews and asking questions that allows them to dive deeper and gain insights on the candidate’s thought process, personality, fit to the culture and the key objectives you would like to accomplish with the position.

Being thorough during the interview process will give you the most useful information about the candidate than the reference check process. And if there’s a conflict — you’re convinced that you’ve got the right person but the references tell you a different story — you need to step up the game by digging deeper and looking for evidence. Remember that talk is cheap. Almost every candidate is a potential unless proved otherwise.

The golden rule (I wasn’t sure if there was one, so I made one up!) is simply this — if a candidate checks all the boxes, hire them. Overcomplicating this process doesn’t serve anyone. The best change you can make is in the recruitment process by having a structured interview and selection-based assessments in place. Anything more is just an overkill.

By Sunil Nair

Nurturing leaders of tomorrow.

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