From the monthly archives: "January 2011"

Recruiters and managers who see reference checks as the last hurdle to jump before hiring their favourite candidate can end up compromising the whole checking process, says Joshua Wood of Wood Consulting.

“The danger of doing it late is that the HR professional has invested so much time in the process already that they don’t really want to find out anything bad,” says Wood, an Organisational Psychologist.

“It’s better if you see it as a serious part of the recruitment process, rather than just a hurdle to get past. Because if you just see it as the final step then you don’t probe on the hints of negative information; you just breeze through it.”

Some employers call referees before narrowing the shortlist to two or three candidates, Wood says. “They’ll make the check like an interview, and they won’t just reference check the one person who they think is going to get the job, they’ll reference check four or five people, which is a completely different mindset.

“It’s treating the reference check as one of the serious stages of the recruitment process and saying, ‘We’ve got some information from an interview’, for example, ‘but we want to verify that or triangulate that with information from another source. If it doesn’t match up we need to do more investigation’.”

However, contacting referees late in the process is understandable and often unavoidable. Phone calls can be time consuming, and “you don’t want to bother someone’s referees unless the candidate looks like someone you probably want to hire, and candidates don’t usually want you to bother their referees unless they’ve got a good chance”, Wood says.

Even if a recruiter or HR manager has limited time and resources, and can only call referees for a few candidates, they can strengthen the integrity of the process by having “the right mindset”.

Be prepared to probe

Rather than simply calling a referee and casually asking what they thought of a candidate, HR personnel and recruiters should prepare specific questions and be willing to ask follow-up questions, Wood says.

“A good interview is structured and standardised. You’ve got some questions, and then you branch out from that with probing.

“The referee doesn’t always want to tell you when the candidate has had interpersonal problems or couldn’t do their job very well – there might even be legal reasons why they don’t want to criticise their previous employee,” Wood explains.

“However, they don’t always like telling outright lies either – for this reason, hints of negatives will tend to leak out.

“You really need to probe further when there is implied criticism or they’re not convincing,” he says.

What to ask

Questions should verify the candidate’s abilities by addressing the competencies required for the role, Wood says. Referees should also be questioned about the candidate’s personal traits.

The five applicant traits that employers assess most often through reference checks are:

1. Cooperation/consideration – how they get along with others;

2. Mental agility – general intelligence;

3. Energy – how hard they work and how much they get done;

4. Dependability – punctuality, number of sick days they take; and

5. Style/refinement – how sophisticated they are, especially if they’re dealing with particular clients or customers.

Simple questions such as “Would you rehire the candidate?” can be worthwhile, “but I think you definitely need to make the referee work a little bit”, Wood says. “So you can ask things like, ‘Compared to other project managers, how would you rate them? Were they average, above average or below average?’ You can do that sort of thing and you can also ask some strategically placed open-ended questions, and I think you tend to get a bit more when you do that.”

Don’t expect the “unvarnished truth”

As important as reference checks are, research shows that a referee’s opinion is not as “predictive” as other forms of assessment, such as a good, structured interview with the candidate, Wood adds.

To begin with, the candidate is choosing their referees, so they’ll tend to choose people who they think look favourably on them. And because referees with negative information won’t necessarily divulge it, it’s still not “the unvarnished truth or an unvarnished opinion”.

“Ideally you should have a lot more influence on who the referees are rather than just letting candidates give them to you,” Wood says.

Some employers actually insist on interviewing a particular person, such as a direct manager from the last job the candidate left. “If the candidate doesn’t want to give their details there’s usually a reason… I understand if it’s a current employer who doesn’t know their staff member is going for a job – that makes sense. But if it’s a former employer and they won’t let you referee check them, you really want to ask why,” he says.

Another limitation is that referees don’t have any vested interest in taking the time to answer questions; after all, they’re not the one going for the job.

However, their level of patience can be telling in itself. “If a referee really likes the candidate and has a lot of respect for them they won’t mind; they’ll want to do them a favour, and that’s often a good sign,” Wood says.

His other tips for sound reference checking are:

  • if you don’t have time to call all referees, consider who has worked with the candidate most recently and who has worked with them the longest. Direct managers are better than former peers who may have become friends, or someone two levels above the person;
  • ask your candidate to call and warn referees who will be getting a call – it makes things go much more smoothly;
  • verify the referee’s identity by ringing the HR department of the company first and getting them to put you through, rather than ringing the direct number your candidate has given you;
  • look for themes and patterns – one manager a referee didn’t get along with doesn’t make a pattern; one job where they didn’t perform doesn’t make a theme. If necessary, ask the candidate for additional referees;
  • be organised – especially if you are reference checking a lot of candidates. You will tend to be leaving messages for a lot of them, so you might get multiple people calling you back – you need to be able to quickly match their name up to who they are.


First published in HR Daily on 27th January 2011