Reference checking – important or not?

Imagine you have interviewed 10 candidates and there are two you would quite like to hire. One is your favourite and the other is your back up.

What is the next step?

You can ask them to give you details of three previous employers, however surely they will only give you details of people who are going to speak highly of them and ‘collaborate their story’, so what’s the point? Why not go straight to making an offer and hope for the best? Or, why not get them to accept the offer, subject to receiving satisfactory references (which are taken once they have resigned)? Then HR can deal with it and you can move on with your life.

What if, by taking references you can increase the likelihood of the new employee succeeding in their new job? This would save you having to go through another 10 interviews in 6 months or so, whilst coping with underperformance for that period of time … Would you be more inclined to do it yourself then?

If handled correctly taking a reference can be as effective as having the candidate completing an assessment, be that online or in an assessment centre. Here’s how to do it.

There is of course a massive advantage to taking advice from someone who has managed the person you want to hire. However, you’ll only gain valuable information by asking the right, open questions.

From “How long did this the person work for you and how much did they earn?” you might learn that they weren’t quite as accurate with the truth as they ought to have been, but other than that, it does not give you much insight as to why they are the right person for you to hire.

Try these instead …

“Tell me, in the 8 years that this individual reported to you how did their role change?” This will tell you whether they have steadily developed in taking more responsibility each year or whether they were content doing the same job for 8 years … Depending on what you are looking for, this could have a big impact on the hiring decision you’re about to make.

“What colleagues did they find challenging to get along with and why?”

“What did their team think of them and how many of their team were promoted over the years?”

“In your opinion, what has held them back from developing their career faster?”

“If they could improve themselves in one area, what would (or should) it be?”

“What motivates / demotivates them?”

“What is the biggest mistake they have made on your watch?” Bearing in mind that if they did not make any mistakes, they probably did not make many decisions.

“With the benefit of hindsight, what would you do to develop them further? And why?”

These are all good questions, which will help you uncover more about the person and how to manage them.
This isn’t really about hiring or not, because you already know that you want to hire them. This reference checking is about finding out the short cuts to success with this individual. And about being a good boss. Knowing people well, warts and all, will help you manage more effectively.

And surely you want one of your referees to tell your prospective new employer this at some point in the future?

I think I have got reference checking down to a fine art and I am happy to help you improve or share my ideas. Phone me!

Maarten Jonckers

+44 (0)1491 845 375