Referees are often reluctant to say negative things about former employees, but recruiters who know what to look for can be alert to warning bells. As we’ve seen in the news last year, not doing a proper reference check can make recruiters liable if the candidate ‘turns bad’. More to the point, you want to know about it now if your candidate is a potential problem, not when they wreak havoc on your client and your agency’s relationship with that client.
A reference check can sometimes save you from making a big mistake, but only if you know what to look for.
As an assessment method, reference checks tend to have severe leniency errors. The comments from referees often sound positive and as the reference checker you can sometimes feel as if you aren’t getting to hear any of the genuine negatives about candidates.
Even though referees tend to avoid telling you about the negatives, if an employee performed poorly, the referee will also dislike telling outright lies about how good they were. Because of this, hints about candidate issues may leak out in referee answers.
Hints are generally quite subtle, but can show themselves in numerous ways. You should take the following hints as invitations to probe more deeply, rather than viewing them as damning evidence in themselves:
Faint praise – “His performance on the project was quite good. He did his job.”
Lack of enthusiasm or hesitation – “Hmmm, yeah, ummm…I would rehire her”. Sometimes the referee just sounds a bit bored. When you get a referee who was impressed with their employee, you can really hear the difference.
Qualification and hedging – “I might rehire her, but only if the right job came up. She would be good in certain roles.”
Euphemisms – “Very independent” might mean the employee didn’t get along with others. “Assertive” might mean they were argumentative or aggressive.
Evasiveness – When the referee avoids answering direct questions about competence levels and/or their responses don’t really match your questions.
Very short answers – These, along with expressions of impatience, might be because you called at an inconvenient time. However, it is sometimes due the referee’s discomfort with having to talk positively about a poor employee, and being uneasy about the deception.
Not being allowed to answer – In lieu of responding to your questions, the referee just reads a legalistic statement with only dates worked, job title and summary of responsibilities.
It is a critical part of reference checking to probe further even on hints of negative issues or faint praise. I recommend that reference checkers:
Be clear about levels of confidentiality from the start. The more confidential the reference check, the more honest the referee can be. Most managers don’t want negative comments to get back to the candidate because it could ruin professional relationships – particularly in very small industries (although aren’t they all).
Assuring complete confidentiality is a problem though, because it prevents you from giving the results to your client. If you assure partial confidentiality (e.g. information is given to the client only) you need to consider how you will answer questions from the candidate about why they didn’t get the job, if it was due to a poor reference. *
Keep asking follow-up questions. You might say, for example, “You say he was moderately strategic – can you give me an example of how he could have been better?” or “You said she was a very independent worker, so how did she go when needing to work with her team?”
Ask in a roundabout way. Saying, “Any glaring weaknesses?” can make a manager hesitate to criticise, but, “Any areas that their next manager needs to be aware of in order to best manage them?” sounds a bit gentler and more reasonable.
Ask a specific, direct question. If you know what issues you are looking for you can ask direct questions. Some manager won’t tell you if you don’t specifically ask, but won’t lie either when you do ask. If you say, for example, “We picked up that he was a bit arrogant – did we get that wrong?” you sometimes get a reply along the lines of, “I wouldn’t say arrogant, but he is very self-confident and sure of his opinions.”
If the referee reads a legalistic statement with only a summary of dates worked and responsibilities, but can’t answer your questions, you must ask something like, “Is it standard practice for your organisation to not give detailed, personalised references, or is this case an exception?”
If it’s an exception then alarm bells should be ringing, loudly.
If you are going to really dig with your questioning, you have to be careful about how you interpret negative information. Conflicts or personality clashes can happen to just about anyone if they’ve been working for long enough and many people have had a job that they weren’t suited to. But, if a theme of interpersonal issues keeps coming up, you might have a problem on your hands.
* When this article was originally published, debate raged over whether confidentiality could even be upheld legally. The view of a lawyer writing for Recruiter Daily was that this was a grey area that hadn’t yet been tested in court.
First published in Recruiter Daily 1st March 2010