These days there are a lot of reasons to justify not bothering with reference checks. First of all, what candidate is going to give you the name of someone who isn’t going to sing their praises? Besides that, many companies have policies that only allows for verification of dates of employment and position held. On top of all that, who has the time to exchange multiple calls and emails? Let’s face it, it’s a hassle and doesn’t guarantee a successful hire.
While a reference check can’t guarantee success it can help you to avoid making the wrong decision…if you can get to the right person and ask the right questions. In my many years as a hiring manager I have hired a lot of people. All (okay, most) were really good people. I have to confess, though, that I have had my share of mismatches. And I have paid dearly for those mistakes. I know there are formula’s that calculate the cost of turnover, but, the numbers don’t really reflect my biggest losses: missed opportunities, my time and attention, the impact to others in my organization and even damaged customer relationships. And then there is the impact to the person I hired. People’s lives and livelihoods are at stake. That is important work.
Now I don’t want you to conclude that I didn’t check the references of the people who didn’t work out. I did. But, I didn’t always do it effectively. When I take the long view, it’s worth doing and doing it right.
So what is the right way? First of all, I don’t want personal references. I don’t want peer references. I already know the deck is stacked. I want someone who is most likely to be able to speak definitively and objectively. I want to speak to the candidate’s supervisor or maybe a customer. Those are the only references I care about.
I also want to make sure I ask about the right things and in a manner that is going to give me information. That is why I prefer that either I make the call or at least develop the questions for my recruiter. I have sincere appreciation for third party verification services and HR personnel that check references, but, I am the subject matter expert of the roles for which I am personally responsible. I start by creating a short list of the most critical experiences and behaviors for my opening. These are the competencies that reflect my expectations. I then create a few specific questions for each competency. I try to craft those questions so that I get more than a “yes/no” response or just a few words. I want to know if this person can do my job and fit into my company. For example, you could ask “How was this person’s customer service skills?” A better way for me is: “John is under consideration for a position that requires a great deal of customer interaction. John told us he had similar responsibilities while working for you. Can you recall a particularly difficult customer situation and what John did to handle it? What was the result?” For a Project Manager, I might say “John is being considered for a Project Management role. This role requires managing multiple IT projects that can last up to two years, tracking budgets of up to $2 million dollars and as many as 10 stakeholders participating. John tells us that was similar to his role with your company. Can you tell me about a particularly large and challenging IT project that John managed and how he did it? What was scope of work? Who were the stakeholders? What was the budget? How long was John involved? What was the result?”
Personally, I think the only thing worse than not checking a reference is to ask only the questions on the checklist you got in new manager or recruiter training for every opening. Each role and each candidate is different and warrants different questioning.
Are references a panacea? No. Are they time consuming? Yes. Are they worth it? Only if you do them right. And the stakes are too high to do them any other way.