Reference Checks: Digging for the Truth

Reference checks are often an afterthought or inconvenience for many employers. As an employer who wants to quit interviewing people and get back to focusing on your own job, you may have experienced a disappointing mis-hire like Kelly did in this true story:

The candidate’s resume looked great. Marcus’s education and experience were beyond stellar. He was personable and interviewed well, and Kelly made the hire after conducting a cursory reference check.

Unfortunately, Marcus demonstrated puzzling behavior from day one. He delegated tasks to other employees who weren’t under his supervision, insisting that certain jobs were beneath him. Even worse, he failed to perform basic aspects of his job, to the point where Kelly almost lost a key customer. Finally, she called him in to let him go, and Marcus left immediately without contesting any of her complaints. Wondering how she could’ve so misjudged him, Kelly did a more thorough reference check and discovered that Marcus had lied on his resume, particularly about his college major.

Sadly, this story is not uncommon. Candidates sometimes lie about their experience or education, hoping to land the job without thinking long-term about their ability to perform its responsibilities. Without using a lie detector, what’s your best defense against these misrepresentations? The solution is to conduct a thorough reference check before making your final decision to help avoid hiring the wrong person. Here are a few tips for making successful reference checks on John Smith, your imaginary candidate.

Before you ever make a call, set your candidate’s expectations for reference checks. Our CEO, Scott Kuethen, recommends that you start first by laying the groundwork for reference checks with John. “In the interview with the candidate, I look him in the eye and ask, ‘So who was your supervisor at ABC Company, John? Mrs. Jones? And when I call Mrs. Jones, what will she tell me was your greatest achievement?’ Letting him know that I’ll be specifically calling his supervisor usually opens up the door for more honest conversation. If candidates believe I’m really going to call all their past supervisors, our conversations will likely be different. Sometimes, they’ll even tell me, ‘Oh, don’t call that one!’”

Prepare your questions. After the interview, while it’s fresh in your mind, make notes about what further information or verification you’d like to glean during reference check calls. Write down specific questions to direct your conversation. Since past behavior is the most accurate predictor of future performance, asking what Mrs. Jones thinks John might do in a new situation is not as helpful as finding out how he has previously behaved. And remember, there’s no absolutely perfect match. Every candidate has flaws.

Now you’re ready to make the call. Here’s one way the conversation could go:

Make the reference feel safe in the conversation. “Hi, Mrs. Jones, this is Ron from XYZ Company. I’ve been interviewing John Smith for a job with our company, and John gave me your name as a reference to verify some information he gave us. I wanted to learn a little bit more about your experience with John. Before we get started, let me assure you that everything you tell me is completely confidential.” (If you’re in California, you can also add, “Anything you and I discuss is privileged under California law.”)

Clarify how the reference knows the candidate. “What is your relationship to the candidate?” If Mrs. Jones is simply a co-worker or friend, you may want to pursue speaking with whomever actually supervised John to get the fullest information.

Position yourself on the candidate’s side so your reference doesn’t feel defensive. “We are really looking for a good fit for John, and we want to make sure this is a good move for his career.”

Start a dialogue so the reference can drop his or her guard. “So, John tells me he was a quality assurance engineer for ABC. Do you have the dates he worked for you? And what exactly did he do for you? What was his rate of pay when he left? How did you manage John to get the best results from him? Would you rehire John if you had the opportunity? What was John’s reason for leaving ABC?” By starting the conversation this way, you help the reference feel more comfortable in talking with you about John.

Use a scale of 1 to 10 to get a rating on areas pertinent to your position. Giving a number can help remove the emotion from the reference’s response. “On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the best, how would you rate John’s performance and productivity while he was there? It was a 4? Can you tell me more about that? And using that same scale, can you rate how John gets along with others? How about his technical knowledge? His skills in ________? Quality of work? Reliability? Initiative? Attendance? Reaction to stress?”

In areas you’ve already identified as concerns, use the assumptive approach. “I’ve noticed in talking with John that one area he needs to improve in is that he seems to have had a few interoffice conflicts. How did John handle his conflicts when he was working for you?” This approach lets Mrs. Jones correct you if it’s not true. But if John did have a problem, the question opens the door for her to agree with you and elaborate.

Follow up with your prepared questions. Now’s the time to ask any questions you may have noted from the interview, if Mrs. Jones hasn’t already addressed them. “What are John’s greatest strengths? Weaknesses? What do you think he needs to continue his or her professional growth? How does John respond to negative feedback or coaching?”

If she responds, “Oh, John was great at that,” then it’s easy to follow up with the questions from your notes.  But if the reference answers neutrally or declines to share information, find out who else might be able to answer your question.

Push beyond neutral responses. If you call a candidate’s former employer and get only his job title and dates of employment, the lack of rave review could possibly mean something negative. To extract negative information that actually tells you something new about the candidate, try asking, “What job in your organization would you not put this person into under any circumstances? Why?”  But be aware that neutral answers don’t always mean some negative fact is being hidden. It is some companies’ policy to give out no more information than the employee’s name and dates of employment, for fear of a defamation suit.

Keep your questions legal. Just as you must keep an interview legal, you also may not ask your reference certain things about your candidate—for example, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, disabilities, medical conditions, marital status, ancestry/nationality, and citizenship. (But your reference may voluntarily tell you without your asking.) Neither may you ask John’s supervisor for a copy of his last performance review (although you may request it directly from John.) And even if your company culture is a strictly non-smoking one, you can’t ask if John goes out for a smoke on his breaks. (But you can ask how John handles taking two 15-minute breaks a day.)

Give your reference permission to tell you more. Is there anything I haven’t asked but which you think I should know before I offer John the job? If you could give John one gift that would help him further his career, what would that be?

For many hiring managers, conducting reference checks is an unpleasant task that they’d rather someone else handle. In those cases, your staffing agency partner can be enlisted to conduct thorough reference checks for you. However, if reference checks are solely your responsibility, knowing how to prepare, what questions to ask, and what topics to avoid can help you tackle the job. Getting the information you need will make the difference between getting stuck with a misfit—or, worse, a liar—and  hiring a top-performing employee who can help your company reach its goals and improve its bottom line.

Did you hire the wrong person and now you wonder what to do? Read this.

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