Common Reference Check Pitfalls

Despite ongoing attempts to reduce the reference checking process to an online, instantaneous "click here" exercise, there will never be an adequate substitute for the human interaction that must occur between whoever is checking a candidate's references and the references themselves. To be effective, the process requires intuition, common sense, extraordinary listening skills, and the ability to combine various comments in a way that accurately portrays the candidate's suitability for the position. In other words, people need to talk to each other.

Over the years, my associates and I have defined the five most common mistakes made by recruiters, employers and others involved with the hiring process. Here they are.

Not Checking at All

Absurd as it may seem, after more than 20 years in the reference checking business, I am still amazed at how many employers don't check references at all. Given the state of the world, it is more important than ever to carefully check the references of all candidates for employment.

Lack of Consistency

This is one of the most dangerous practices in the employment arena. There are employers who check references on some candidates and not on others. Why wouldn't they check them all? This does not mean the scope or comprehensiveness of the check has to be the same for every level or position, but some form of reference checking, appropriate to the position, should be carried out on all candidates.

Making the Job Offer Contingent on a Reference Check

References should be checked much earlier in the process than many employers actually perform them. Once the top two or three candidates have been identified through resume screenings and initial interviews, references should be checked before any consideration is given to making a job offer. If the references confirm a candidate's skills, experience and ability, then conduct a follow-up interview armed with that knowledge. More importantly, making an offer contingent on a positive reference check creates a legal relationship between the employer and candidate. Why would you want to do that?

Not Requiring References Who Have Worked Directly with the Candidate

Employers will often incorrectly assume that the only references available to them are the ones attached to the candidate's resume. Employers have every right to ask candidates to provide a list of the types of references they want, not just the ones the candidate wants them to have. Every employer should insist candidates provide the names of at least one former supervisor, a peer, and a subordinate. While that mix may not always be possible, the point is that employers should be talking with people who have actually worked with the candidate on a daily basis within the last five to seven years.

Asking Leading questions and Failing to Ask Follow-Up Questions

Many employers only ask references job performance questions that require nothing more than a "yes" or "no" answer. Instead of asking, "Was Bill a good worker?" they should ask, "How would you describe Bill's on-the-job performance?" The other half of the problem is that prospective employers do not ask logical follow-up questions. If a reference says Sue was the best employee the company every had, few will take the next step and ask, "Could you tell how her performance was so extraordinary?"

Careful reference checking requires time, training and insight. If done properly, it can be one of the most useful hiring tools available to any employer. If done poorly, it can lead to hiring someone who not only can't do the job, but also who could do more harm than good for the company.