Finallly, Check Those References!

I recently wrote about two of the steps for hiring a new employee: defining the knowledge, skills, abilities and characteristics that make the outstanding employee in that position, and asking questions in the interview to get at those requirements. One of the final steps before making a hiring decision should always be a reference check. I can’t tell you how often my clients have failed to check references (because Harry or Sally had such a great resume and did so well in the interview) and only later found out that not everything they were being told was true. So – always, ALWAYS check several references.

In this day and age some employers are reluctant to give references for fear of being sued. I have gotten around that problem by asking the applicant to give each reference a letter (which I provide and the applicant signs) telling them I might be calling and asking them to be honest and candid with me in our conversation. This certainly doesn’t guarantee the applicant won’t later sue (thought almost none ever do), but does reassure the reference. I ask the applicant to give such a letter to at least three professional references. I speak with all three of them, and also with others not provided by the applicant. I get these by asking the references for other supervisors or colleagues or customers with whom the applicant worked – and have generally been successful in getting names and contact information. I then tell those people that the reference suggested I speak with the, and have found that to work as well.

The very best way to check references is through a conversation rather than a written form. That way you can follow up with additional questions if you need more information. Develop your questions ahead of time, and base them on the same knowledge, skills, abilities and characteristics you identified earlier.

It’s fine to ask an initial general question such as, “In what capacity did you work with Harry and for how long?” But after that, get to those job-specific questions. For example, if skill in dealing with irritated customers is one of the key job requirements, you might ask, “Can you give me some examples of times when Harry dealt with irritated customers?” What you’re looking for in the answer are examples that are comparable to or more complex then what Harry will be expected to do in the job for which he has applied with you. And, of course, you hope to hear that Harry handled the situations the way you’d want him to!

In another example, if skill in working as a member of a team is a requirement, you could ask, “Tell me about a team of which Harry was a member.” Ask about the team’s reason for being, and specific examples of times that Harry worked especially well or especially poorly with that team. Again, you’re looking for a level of difficulty and complexity that matches or exceeds that of your vacancy, and how Harry dealt with it.

A couple of the most common questions that are asked in reference checks are, “What are Harry’s strengths and weaknesses?” and “Would you hire Harry again?”  Unfortunately, these don’t give you very good information about whether Harry would work out in your job. Answers to these questions are based purely on the opinion and judgment of the reference – and if you don’t know a lot (or anything) about that individual you have no idea how accurate those are. So, spend your time asking useful questions rather than these to get the very best information.

Always speak to more than one reference, and evaluate the responses from the references against criteria for the specific job you’re filling. Each time you do that you increase your chances of hiring the best match for the job.

Have you had experience checking references- or a bad experience when you didn’t ? We’d love to hear about it!

We won’t be sending a Workplace Insiders blog next week, so have a great Thanksgiving and we’ll be in touch in two weeks. ~Daphne Schneider

2 responses to “Finallly, Check Those References!

  1. A number of years ago I had an experience with reference checking that made a deep impression on me. We had interviewed a guy for an executive position to establish and lead a new line of business and the hiring official told me to offer the job, ‘contingent on his references”. He gave us the names of three professional references. I spoke with them personally and learned the candidate had not performed well for any of them. He billed for work he didn’t perform and left them (customers) in a pickle. Lights and buzzers went off for me, but not for the hiring official, who dismissed the information and hired the guy anyway. Within three months the man had done to us what he did to his previous clients and it cost a bundle! I learned, never make an offer until you’ve checked references!

  2. Also worth knowing: there is a Washington statute that protects employers who give references if the information relates to: (a) the employee’s ability to perform his or her job; (b) the diligence, skill, or reliability with which the employee carried out the duties of his or her job; or (c) any illegal or wrongful act committed by the employee when related to the duties of his or her job. See RCW 4.24.730 for more information about this very helpful law.

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