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Reference Check: Passé or Pursuit?

Reference Check: Passé or Pursuit?

During my tenure in the talent acquisition field, a colleague once shared with me on her views that reference check should no longer be embedded in the recruitment process, especially in today’s recruitment landscape, where speed helms everything.

Here’s why:

  1. Conducting reference check is a process that requires tumultuous time and effort from the recruiters, especially true if they fail to get hold of the reference at the first instance. They need to go that extra mile of getting hold of him by following up with a few more calls, yet exercising caution to avoid conjuring the impression that they are simply spamming his phone.
  2. Recruiters are twirled into the tug-of-war for talents in today’s recruitment landscape hence businesses are always urging them to hire fast. However, responding to that reference check does not rank as top priority in the reference’s to-do list amidst his busy schedule, hence delaying the recruitment process, which in some dire situations may engender loss of potential candidates to competitors.
  3. Information received from reference checks is solely based on the reference’s own experiences and encounters with the candidate, without any empirical evidence or data analytics to back up the hiring decision. For instance, if the candidate had a strained working relationship with the reference, he will unlikely receive a positive feedback.

Personally I had some frustrating encounters where the references are not forthcoming and sincere about doing the reference checks. For such cases, recruiters have to exercise discretion and judgement in making the right hiring decision. Despite the challenges, I still believe in making reference check as part of the recruitment process as it affirms or clarifies the recruiter’s and hiring manager’s findings or doubts gathered from the interviews hence enable them to make an informed hiring decision. Afterall, it is always better to exercise caution and hire right, than to get a bad hire onboard. However there are stark lapses in the current process which need refining to yield better results.

So the question is, what can be done further to improve the current process of conducting a reference check?

  1. Bring forward reference check in the hiring process. Typically, reference checks are conducted only after the candidate has successfully passed all the rounds of interview, and before the recruiter makes an offer. Assuming that the reference check turns out to be negative, all the effort spent in interviewing the candidate goes down the drain and the process starts all over again, hence prolonging the cycle to fill this vacancy. On the flip side, if reference check was made after the first interview, there would be more reaction time to source for other candidates should the check be negative, hence the impact will be mitigated as recruiters can better manage the expectations of hiring managers.
  2. Tap on social media. With the affluence of social platforms such as LinkedIn, recruiter can easily search and browse the candidate’s profile and check on his credentials and testimonials written by his superiors and co-workers, or look out for red flags. Trust that they are speaking with condor as they are putting their professional reputation at stake by leaving that painstakingly-crafted testimonial for the public eyes. Thus this works wonders as an informal mean of reference check as well.
  3. Leverage on mutual network. Go on to social media such as Facebook or LinkedIn and search for mutual network between yourself and the candidate. You will be surprised to find a couple of mutual friends as we are all inter-connected to everyone in this corporate world via second or third degree network. Start speaking to your mutual network and you might just gather new insights that were overlooked or not shared during the interviews. This should act as a more reliable informal reference check since you know the reference personally.
  4. Use open-ended questions instead of a “Yes-No” script. Most of the time, recruiters have a standard “must-ask” questionnaire in their hands when speaking to the reference. Bear in mind, if you start asking standard questions, it is very likely that you might just receive standard answers. Try revamping the way you conduct the reference check by first abandoning the questionnaire that has not been reviewed for the past decades, and start identifying some doubts that you may wish to clarify. For instance, ask open-ended questions to generate discussion, such as “What are her major contributions as a Compensation Specialist?”, rather than asking a series of “Yes-No” questions that stifles information gathering.
  5. Be personable and sincere. It always works if you are able to establish rapport and human touch, after all you are seeking a favour from someone who does not know you. Start off by sending the reference a short email to introduce yourself, state your intent and check with him on the appropriate time to make that phone call. Take an accommodating stand and chances of him returning you the favour of giving a candor feedback will be higher. Personally I came across other HR professionals requesting for reference checks via email attachments, without a single call or email to introduce themselves. In some cases, they even gave a deadline for you to send the return.

I still advocate having reference check conflated into the recruitment process as it not only acts as a safety net to sieve out “bad” candidates, it also serves as an affirmation to your findings gathered from interviews that you are indeed getting the right talent onboard. Do it right and the results will be multi-folds.

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