How To Reference Candidates Better

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By Jas Singh

Just before Christmas, one of our clients shortlisted a strong candidate for a senior executive level leadership position – for a Global Head of Strategy. It was a thorough process and after speaking to five strong people and three rounds of assessment all the management team unanimously agreed on this one person.

As is common, they then decided to ask for references. Which came back fine. Problem was, one of the management team was good friends with someone who had previously worked with this candidate and so decided to pick his brain as well for an extra reference. You can guess what happened next. Feedback wasn’t 100% great – next thing we knew there were doubts, hesitations and in short the whole thing unravelled faster than Donald Trump could say “You’re fired”.

Reference checking is an important tool in hiring but only if used in the proper manner. Here are a few things to be considered:

1) Don’t leave reference checks right to the end!

Leaving reference checking until the end is pointless for two reasons. Firstly candidates at that stage are usually going to be seriously interested in the role and know exactly what you are looking for, so are likely to “prep” their references accordingly. Secondly it allows you very little time or flexibility to re-examine something that may come up in a reference. Once you say “all we need to do is check references”, candidates interpret that as “you’ve got the job unless something comes up in the reference”. Hiring managers trap themselves.

I usually suggest my clients check references after the first interview. By then there is a committment from both parties and it allows you to gather more useful info – which you can re-examine if neccessary.

2) Ask about specific experiences

References are not meant to catch candidates out and test the accuracy of their answers during the interview process. Unfortunately that is what most companies use it for. The problem is the person you are speaking to may (more likely will) have a different perspective, language and interpretation to the actual candidate you are considering.

It’s better to ask about specific experiences – the more focussed the question the less room there is for ambiguous answers. For example if you ask me “how did Jas go about winning X client?” I could give thousands of answers each with a different emphasis and interpretation. However a more focussed question is “When you were working on X client I understand from speaking with Jas their budget wasn’t high enough at the start. Can you give me your perspective on how Jas may have influenced them to eventually buy the product despite this initial lack of budget?”.

Requires more thought and effort yes. But leaves less room for innaccuracy.

3) Offer a “reference” on yourself and your company

Successful hiring is always a two-way process. References are usually one-way – historically they have been viewed as checking “trustworthiness” of answers. It sends out the worng message.

To counter this, I suggest all my clients give a reference on themselves as a hiring manager and also on the company they work for. Got a shared LinkedIn connection? Know a common person? Think it might be useful for the candidate to meet a member of your team? Volunteer for the candidate to call them.

As a hiring manager this shows the candidate you care about them making the right decision and also raises your own credibility.

4) Don’t base an entire hiring decision on one reference

A reference is simply another person’s perspective. Usually a very short one, mostly with little aforethought and often outdated. If you have spent hours assessing a candidate with your trusted colleagues and for a role that you know better than anyone else, does it make sense that one slightly unexpected comment should have the final say?!

According to my experience in personally placing around 350 candidates (just crunching some rough numbers so please don’t take as fact!) references are at most only worth 20% of the overall hiring assessment weighting. A well designed assessment process still carries far more weight. If there is something suspicious at play a well designed assessment process will mostly uncover it. And 20% is all the references combined – not just a negative “one-off” single reference.

References are important but not the only factor. Otherwise if references were that accurate, why interview in the first place?

5) Meet the reference if possible, at the very least at least call them!

At least 3 major investment banks I know reference by either email or a scripted telephone questioning of how long the reference has known the candidate, what dates they worked together etc. Both are pointless other than to tick a box.

Hiring managers should at the very least arrange a 10-15 minute call with the reference and state from the outset what they would like to discuss. So they can go deep and make the excercise worthwhile.

Although time consuming and understandably not possible all the time, for key hires it’s also a good idea to try and meet the reference – even if it is for a 15 minute coffee. As a hiring manager this will stand you apart from everyone else – demonstrating to the candidate and the reference that you are a true professional. And on the basis that like-minded people know like-minded people you never know – your “reference” might even be your next hire!

Conclusion

References are powerful in all forms of business and relationships. Unfortunately often they are merely used as a last minute corporate ritual.

Top hiring managers use references as best as possible to gain an unbeatable competitve edge.

Next time you’re hiring how will you reference?

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