Are reference checks worth it? Survey says…

There are many 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 allow 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.

But, in the current environment, where in-person interviews are becoming almost obsolete, you may need to depend on those reference checks to help you choose the right candidate. And hiring managers are realizing that.

In April, Checkster surveyed 400 U.S. hiring managers still hiring during the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall, they reported a significant shift away from in-person interviews, with 43 percent citing a reduction and 25 percent stopping entirely. The survey respondents rely heavily on phone interviews (69 percent), video interviews (62 percent), assessment testing (53 percent), reference checks (46 percent) and background checks (35 percent).

While a reference check can’t guarantee success, it can help you 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’ve hired a lot of people. All (okay, most) are good people. But I must confess. I have had my share of mismatches.

I know there are formulas that calculate the cost of turnover, but, the numbers don’t really reflect my biggest losses: missed opportunities, my time and attention, the impact on others in my organization and even damaged customer relationships.

And then there is the impact on the person I hired. People’s lives and livelihoods are at stake. That is a big responsibility.

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?

Stay away from personal references.

I don’t want peer references or friends. I already know the deck is stacked with this type of reference. 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 even a customer. Those are the only references I care about.

Do the reference check yourself.

When speaking to a reference, I want to make sure I ask about the right things and in a manner that is going to provide the right information. That’s why I prefer that either I make the call or at least develop the questions for my internal recruiter. I have a 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.

Ask the right questions.

I start by creating a shortlist 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 the questions so that I get more than a “yes/no” response or just a few words.

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 job. This role requires managing multiple IT projects that can last up to two years, tracking budgets of up to $2 million 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 the scope of work? Who were the stakeholders? What was the budget? How long was John involved? What was the result?”

Don’t forget to ask culture-fit questions.

I want to know if this person can do the job and fit into the company culture. You could ask questions like, “How would you describe your company’s work culture? Was the candidate a good fit? Why or why not?” Or you could ask, “How would you describe the candidate’s attitude at work? How would the candidate’s co-workers describe him/her?”

Personally, I think the only thing worse than not checking a reference is to ask only the questions on the checklist you got in the new manager or recruiter training for every opening. Each role and every candidate is different and warrants customized 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.

Need help with your hiring (and reference checking) efforts? Contact us and we can help guide you through the process.

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