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12 Secret Sleuthing Steps to Successful Reference Checks

Posted in Management @ Apr 12th 2012 - By Judy Gillespie, Vetanswers
Sleuth

Ahh reference checks...Ok ...I admit it - I hate doing them. But there is NO way I would ever hire someone without doing at least two and sometimes three reference checks.

Why?  Well believe it or not but some people lie!  Shocking I know – but not everything you read in a person’s resume may in fact be true!  And then there’s another little thing called ‘perception’.  An applicant may think they are amazing communicators but their amazing communication skills may not match up with your expectations.

Apart from the fact that you can’t take a resume (or someone’s word) at face value, there are a number of other reasons why checking references is so essential:

  • It makes far more sense to spend a few hours making a couple of phone calls than have to go through the pain of removing someone from your business – forewarned is forearmed!
  • Confirming that they do in fact have certain skills and can apply those skills can make a huge difference to the induction and training process of a new employee
  • One wrong employee has the potential to cause massive amounts of damage to your business – and you may not even be aware that it’s happening (One Employee Will Kill Your Business and You Won’t Know It When it Happens – Customer Think)

But wait there’s more!

Now according to another HCOnline article ‘Beware fake job references –it’s big business’  you also need to be aware of online services that not only provide customised, professional references but will also act as a referee!   “We pretend to be your ex-employer(s) in your last position and will act as a reference to hopefully get you into a job. From there it is entirely up to you to prove your skills to the employer. Anyone receiving a reference from us must understand this – we can only help you get the job, not keep the job,” the site’s founder “Mark” told HC.

Nice!   All this for the bargain prices of $99 or two references for $149 (sorry if I sound harsh, but some people just seem to be a waste of space!)

We can all breathe a sigh of relief though as this particular site does draw the line at posing as a referee for jobs in the medical, legal or defence sectors.  Hmm – I don’t see the veterinary industry mentioned here!

So although checking references can really be a pain it is so important to not only make the effort to do it but also put on your detective’s hat to make sure you're doing it effectively.

When checking references you have two goals: to determine if the information in a resume is factual e.g. employment dates and job title; and secondly, assessing areas such as reliability, punctuality, personal presentation, etc.

As discussed in another recent HCOnline article ‘Reference checking as essential recruitment ingredient’you also need to be sure that while you are undertaking reference checks you don't overstep legal boundaries such as the privacy legislation.

The key to successful reference checking is really the same as every other step in the recruitment process – focus on the selection criteria.  By focusing on the essential and also possibly the desirable criteria for the position you are far less likely to come across any legal issues.

So what are my twelve secret sleuthing steps for successful reference checking? 

1. Explain Your Process

During the interview explain to the applicant that you will be undertaking a minimum of two reference checks.  Then after consultation with the candidate YOU choose who the appropriate people to contact are. Do not rely on those references listed in the resume. Play the detective and carefully determine who the candidate directly reported to – these are the people you need to talk to.

2. Receive Written Authority

Make sure you receive written authority from the applicant to contact your choices of referees – make it easy by adding a section to the bottom of your interview form that the candidate can sign to indicate agreement.

3. Use a Standardised Form to Record Information Discovered

Pre-prepare your questions before making your ref check calls and of course ensure the questions are based on your selection criteria.  Here’s a Sample Reference Checklist that you may find useful.  It’s in ‘Word’ format so you can modify it to suit your selection criteria.

4. Watch Your Language

Speak objectively and fairly during the reference check and never offer your opinion on the applicant – focus on your aim to collect information that relates to how successfully the applicant can perform the tasks required to do the job.  

5. Aim for a Landline Not a Mobile

Never contact a referee via a mobile phone or direct line at first.  Always contact the company via the main switch line & ask for the name of the manager of xx Department.  (Just to make sure it’s not just the candidate’s best mate).  Then ask to be put through to the relevant manager.

6. First Impressions & Persistence Count

Start your phone calls by introducing yourself, your position and your organisation.  Explain the reason for your call - for example, you are completing a reference check on ............. who is seeking a position with your business.  Ask the referee if they have time now to discuss the applicant, if not explain you’re happy to call back another time.  I always find this sentence is a great way to encourage reluctant referees – if they know you’re going to be persistent it’s amazing how keen they are to answer your questions immediately!

7. Start With the Basics

A good place to start is by asking: “Could you please confirm the position title and the dates of employment?” – again by not offering this information it makes it harder for the fakers.

8. Dealing With the Negatives

If a potential referee says “I don’t give references”. Ouch!  My response? “Sure no problem, can I just confirm their position title & date of employment please?”  Most people will answers these questions and then if I’m feeling lucky I also try and slip in a few other questions.

9. A Number Scale Can Make It Easier

It's often suggested that when checkign references, open questions are best. But when you’re dealing with a referee who may be far from communicative I’ve always found it more effective to give them a scale to work with.  For example, “On a scale of 1 to 5 – where 1 is poor and 5 is excellent – how would you rate their reliability?” Offering a scale with an odd number is often criticised for allowing people to take the middle ground so you may prefer a 1 to 4 scale instead. Personally,  if an applicant is receiving all 3’s from a referee then I’d like to know about it as I wouldn’t want to employ someone who is just ‘average’ at everything!

10. Ahh ...My favourite Question

My favourite final question is: “If given the opportunity would you re-employ this person?” Why/why not?”  I’ve had numerous experiences where an applicant has been scoring consistently well with the reference check but when Ive asked this question I’ve received a resounding “No!”  This indicates to me that I just haven’t asked the right question yet & gives a great opportunity to investigate further.

11. What's Hiding In Your Work History?

We all have people in our working history that we would rather didn’t give us a reference – maybe we just had a personality clash, different expectations or they were just really bad managers!  So it’s important to not write someone off after one bad ref check.  I would always do at least three to determine what the pattern really is – good or bad! 

12. NEVER Ignore a Gut Feeling

Finally, I’m a huge believer in my ‘gut feeling’.  If I’m getting a picture from a referee that just doesn’t fit with the picture that has emerged during the recruitment and selection process- either good or bad! Then I’ll either ask more questions or undertake a third reference check.

So there you have my secret 12 steps to turn you into a Super Sleuth when it comes to reference checking.  Yes, there is no doubt that reference checking is a time consuming process to do properly.  But I guarantee you it takes far less time and stress than going through the process of removing someone from your business that looked so good on paper and came across so professionally during the interview but seemed to turn into a totally different person once they started working for you!

What are your tips for successful reference checking? Share them in the comments section below.

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