Common practice as part of the hiring practice is to request that the candidate provide the potential employer with a list of references. The aim of this is in part to verify the information provided by the candidate and in part to shed some light on what type of employee this person was in previous positions.
Throughout my own career I’ve been part of a variety of organizations who fall along a wide spectrum in terms of their reliance on this activity as part of the hiring process. Some organizations are very serious about references and include them as part of a complete background check process that looks at things such as criminal records, credit reports, etc… Other organizations on the other hand seem to be satisfied with receiving the information on these reference and does not even bother calling them.
Regardless of where the organization falls along this diverse perspective, one thing is clear and that is that whatever references provide in way of information about a candidate, that information has to be taken with a grain of salt. After all, if a candidate believes that a reference will offer negative feedback about their capability, that person is not going to be likely included on that list.
However, I’ve also come across instance where the candidate did not prepare the reference for the type of feedback they should stress and as such as the hiring manager I found myself able to reach some inadvertent truth about the weaknesses of a potential candidate.
While I think that checking references is a valuable step, it may not yield the type of feedback that will provide a go/no go decision on hiring. Despite that, it is an important part of the process to ensure that what the candidate put on an application corresponds with past history.
There are areas that can offer insight that the hiring manager should take advantage of. Here are a few lessons learned that I gained based on the hiring process and the subsequent observation of the candidates that my organization hired:
- If the best comment that a reference offers is “you’ll be lucky to get him working for you,” it is quite possible that the other part of this statement “I never could get him to do anything for me.”
- Negative feedback is not a deal breaker. One of the best hires I made was based on a warning that a previous manager offered. He told me “this candidate is honest and is a hard worker, but he is not creative and is not polished.” I hired this person with my eyes open and was able to position him for success.
- Inconsistencies between what the candidate provided in interviews versus what the references offer should be followed up on. For example, a candidate might say “I was project manager on xyz project,” but the reference might say “candidate x was the project assistant.” Again this is an opportunity to find out if there is a misalignment or the candidate is overstating their experience.
- Too much flattery sometimes is a bunch of hot air. It is important to ask probing question to help clarify why the reference feels this way. It may be that there is good reason, however, it is possible that there is no basis for it.
- Relationships matter. It is important to establish an understanding of how well the reference knows the person and how often they’ve been in touch with each other.
In general I believe that references will do the right thing and offer the information needed to the best of their ability. On very rare occasions did I find this to the contrary. Once I was told by a reference “this person is nice but I’ve never worked with her,” later I discovered that this was not true.
As I said at the beginning of the post, the key for me is to make sure that references are part of a bigger process rather than over-rely or underestimate them.