Why references are no better than paid endorsements


Recruitment specialist Kara Atkinson. Source: Supplied.

It’s exciting when you finally reach the pointy end of the recruitment process, you’ve found ‘the one’, a virtuoso head and shoulders above the rest.

You instruct HR to finalise reference checks and make the offer —your job is done— you can already see them starting in your business.

Except this is the exact time to pump the brakes. The worst thing you can do is have your HR or contingent recruiter merely conduct a couple of standard checks.

A 2015 study found as many as 46% of hires will fail within 18 months. That’s a coin flip.

Further, University of Massachusetts research from 2013 has found 81% of people lie during interviews, telling an average of 2.3 lies every 15 minutes.

When you hand a reference check over to another person, objectivity is impossible. No matter how impressive your external recruiter is, or how rigorous your interview process, a bad candidate can still slip through the cracks.

On a critical hire, think of the damage a miss hire could do to the position and to you.

If you’re working with a contingency recruiter, they have a cognitive bias, they don’t get paid unless their candidate gets hired. This is where that feeling comes from, that your contingency recruiter is representing the candidate, even though you’re the one footing the bill. The exception to the rule, of choosing not to outsource reference checks, is in utilising HR Senior Leadership or using a seasoned engaged recruiter.

Contemporary reference checks have lost their value and are now nothing more than a ‘check the box’ exercise.

References are no better than a list of paid endorsements, the referees have been prepared and will put the candidate in the best possible light and, predictably, will let you know their biggest weakness is ‘over dedication to work’.

This is not to say you shouldn’t call, but take everything they say with a grain of salt.

A red flag is evident if the candidate list is missing direct managers. Don’t let the candidate tell you they have lost contact, in today’s world of LinkedIn that’s a feeble excuse.

Your ultimate play is to run a search on LinkedIn,  call their previous direct employer and ask. You will get a more honest response.

You may ask if this is unethical, well, would asking a mutual acquaintance their opinion on a candidate be unethical? Not at all. The reality is, with LinkedIn and constant connectivity, our professional world is shrinking.

The confidential nature of this exercise must be stressed, you certainly can’t put the candidate at risk with current employers. Always be mindful.

Ideally, focus on recent direct managers, over the past 5-10 years. Only managers can tell you about the impact the candidate had. Ask direct questions which aren’t standard reference checks and relate specifically to the competency and KPIs of the role.

Ask questions most interviewers don’t ask, the ones that are hard to answer.

Did Tracy report directly to you? Tell me about the role she was in? We require these competencies, how does Tracy rate on those? Did she resign or was she asked to leave? What was her biggest quantifiable accomplishment? Her biggest failure? Her biggest challenge? Compare this information to the interview and cross-check candidate answers.

Tracy mentioned this accomplishment, what was her role in that project? How do you describe her leadership style? We are really impressed with her, how do you suggest I manage her? On a scale of 1-10 how strong is your referral? If less than 10, why not a 10? Keep asking why, why, why.

Do not make the hiring decision until references are done with rigour. It doesn’t matter how much they have blown you away in the interview. The best interviewees don’t make the best employees. If you dodge one bullet in 20, it will be well worth the extra mile.

The more senior the position, the more thorough the referencing has to be,as the level increases, so do the stakes. Leadership hires will have an impact on the trajectory of your business and it is exponentially more costly to remove the hire and start again than it is to get it right in the first place.

Kara Atkinson is the owner of The Sales Recruiter and founder of The Sales Leader Network.

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2 years ago

Contemporary reference checks have lost their value and are now nothing more than a ‘check the box’ exercise. Seriously, did anyone think otherwise. If they did and they work in HR they should be sacked immediately for negligence.

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