ARE REFERENCE CHECKS RELIABLE?

Not really, is my experience. Reference checks are overhyped and given way too much weight in the recruitment process. I am not saying you should not do reference checks, but merely suggesting to give this one input some perspective. A reference check is only one piece of the jigsaw puzzle you must piece together before making that big decision: who to hire.

Checks are inherently biased. You will typically be calling people referred to you by the candidate. OK, not always you say – you also call the HR who may confirm employment details but rarely give comments on personality, attitude and leadership style. But how do you measure how well the person actually knows the candidate? How do you check that the person you speak to is 100% sure of who you are talking about?

How do you know that the reference is not the boyfriend, the neighbour, or an old school mate? How do you know that someone is not retaliating against an old enemy and sees this as an opportunity to settle an old score? Can you be sure that the reference is not drunk, sick or doesn’t have some emotional disorder? And what about this one: the reference wants the job and is purposely backstabbing your chosen candidate?

And from my own files and real life experience: how do you know that you are not calling the candidate herself on her second secret mobile number? Yes, it happened in our practice. Only because of an alert consultant who spoke to the reference, i.e. the candidate herself, did we realise in time what was going on. We immediately reported our finding to our client and the person’s employment was cancelled even before it started.

But let’s take it from the beginning. Sourcing of candidates comes in a number of forms. You may have engaged a headhunter to search for hard-to-find passive candidates in the market place, perhaps asked a recruitment company to look in their database for active candidates who come close to your required profile, or perhaps you have been buying resumes from an agency who has been shopping on the internet for applicants on your behalf. You may have tried your luck by advertising in the printed media, or sourced people through your company’s employee referral programme. Luckily, the options are plentiful.

Once you have identified potential candidates or applicants, as a result of your preferred sourcing, there are several steps you must take to increase the odds in the calculated risk of employing another person. In today’s story, I’ll comment on the first step in the process (telephone screening) and the last (reference checking).

An initial telephone call to the applicant/candidate will often save you tears, heartbreak and hours of otherwise wasted time in meeting candidates who are not even close to what you are looking for. Nobody wants to meet an applicant or candidate, only to realise after five minutes that both of you are red faced and embarrassed by the situation. That situation could be that English is not spoken at the necessary level; it may turn out that a native English speaker wrote the resume for their friend; you realise too late that the individual must honour three months notice but the job you’re working on has to be filling in weeks; or there is a non-compete clause that makes it impossible to offer the job to an otherwise perfect candidate. These are all things that could have been checked in a five-minute telephone conversation.

When you call references I recommend that you do not call their mobile telephone number. Instead, insist that you get the company contact details to ensure you will be talking to the right person in the right company.

In addition to the names provided by the candidate, try to call the HR departments of the companies where your candidate has worked most recently. However, if it was more than five years ago, many HR files will no longer exist or they may be stored at a remote location – in other words, this will be a dead end.

When you come to phoning the reference people or HR department, introduce yourself and say: “Would you like to call me back, just to make sure I’m the person I say I am? Our company telephone number is 01 234 5678. Or should we just go ahead?”

Some questions you can ask HR: did our candidate work in your company and if so, what period was that? What was their last position? Did our candidate resign or was s/he dismissed? How was the departure from your company, was there any litigation?

If you call references try a 360-degree check. It involves superiors, peers, sub-ordinates, customers and suppliers. Here are examples of questions you can ask (in addition to those mentioned under HR above): In which company and period did you work together? What were our candidate’s responsibilities and duties? What work behaviour was most admired about our candidate? In terms of personality and attitude, how do you remember our candidate? If you had a chance to work with our candidate again, would you or not? Were there any domestic, personal or financial difficulties that interfered with the work? Was there any time our candidate’s honesty and integrity had to be questioned? What advice would you give our candidate’s next employer?

Tom Sorensen is a Headhunter and Partner at Grant Thornton in Thailand. Contact tom.sorensen@th.gt.com; www.grantthornton.co.th; Twitter @Headhunter_Tom