Making the Final Selection

How can I conduct an effective reference check?

There are still many misperceptions out there regarding what can or can't be discussed during the reference-checking process. Many otherwise well-informed employers mistakenly believe that it's illegal to check references on candidates. Still others believe that checking references isn't a good use of time because only dates and titles of employment are revealed.

Little could be further from the truth! In fact, references are just as important—if not more important—than interviewing. Why? Because a well-placed reference-checking telephone call can provide you with a prism through which you can see the future. Prior supervisors' opinions of candidates' strengths, weaknesses, and areas of development, along with perceptions of how candidates will fare in particular working environments, are exceptionally valuable avenues of exploration in the selection process.

How can you ensure that you won't simply have your call forwarded to a company's human resources department where name, rank, and serial number will be the only feedback you get? More important, how do you get prior supervisors to speak candidly with you regarding weaknesses and areas for improvement?

Following is a methodology for generating critical information during a reference check:

Step 1: Once you've selected a finalist candidate, ask the individual to ''bridge the reference'' for you. In other words, ask the candidate to locate her prior supervisors and to ask them to accept your phone call regarding her performance.

Step 2: Open the phone call by painting a picture of your corporate culture and its unique pressures so that the former supervisor can do some evaluative decision making regarding the individual's fit with your company.

Step 3: Reassure the supervisor that what he says will not dictate whether you hire the individual. You simply need to know how to best manage the person from day one.

Step 4: Save formal questions like ''dates and title'' until the end of the reference-checking process.

Tell Me More

Too many employers make the mistake of calling past employers ''cold'' and expecting feedback. If a former supervisor hasn't heard from a candidate in two or three years, don't expect lots of subjective feedback. It's a ''cold'' call, and you'll probably get a cold response: ''Call human resources. Company policy says I can't give any reference information'' is the typical company line you should expect.

Other employers, once given the okay to begin asking reference questions, begin by reading off a sheet of canned questions. Their queries are asked in a vacuum, and former supervisors are forced to respond generically to superficial questions like ''What did she do for you? What were her greatest strengths and weaknesses? And was she timely in meeting deadlines?'' Not that those aren't important points—they're just mediocre in their presentation and reveal little eye-opening information.

Here's a better way to handle references. First, figure out what concerns you. Then find a way to incorporate that information into the reference. For example, let's assume you're looking to hire a Web developer who is technically qualified for the job but appears to jump from job to job much too much. Assuming the candidate has spoken with his previous supervisor and confirmed that the prior supervisor is expecting your call, here's what your call might sound like:

Jay, my name is Paul Falcone, and I'm the executive producer of We're a training and development organization that focuses on providing small to mid-size companies with management training in the areas of performance management, leadership, train-the-trainer, and workplace conflict resolution. We're privately held and have about twenty-five employees. I'm calling you, Jay, because Doris Panico is a candidate we're seriously considering for our Web designer job opening. She told us that you were her immediate supervisor at Corporate Training, Inc., and I was hoping that you'd be able to share some insights into her ability to excel in our company. Is now a good time—do you have a few minutes?

Great! First, Jay, before I ask you any questions, let me just tell you that we're a small, start-up dot-com, and our culture is kind of an ''anything goes'' type of outfit. We're not much on formalities or policies and procedures. I need someone who's easygoing and who'll fit in and get along with everyone else, and that's my main concern when bringing new people aboard. Please keep that in the back of your mind when answering my questions, okay?

We all liked Doris, but we were a bit concerned about her career stability. I know Generation X-ers tend to move around a lot, especially those who are pursuing careers in the somewhat unstable world of dot-com startups. Still, Doris doesn't appear to have sunk her teeth into any work assignment for more than six months at any time. She's only been out of school for two years, but I'm afraid she still needs to kiss a few frogs before she finds her prince. Did you experience the same thing, and were you disappointed when she left your company?

Note here that if the employer is hesitant to provide any reference information for fear of legal repercussions, you should replace the notion of ''what you tell me will determine whether we hire this person'' with an appeal to the employer's managerial expertise:

Jay, I won't ask you to address anything you'd rather keep confidential. I asked Doris to call you in advance because I know that prior employers will always try to help people that they liked. I also want you to know that I don't need you to unilaterally judge her past and feel pressure relative to our hiring her or not. It's more a case of our wanting to know how to best manage her and provide the right level of structure, direction, and feedback if we were to hire her. We're not looking for someone with a halo who can part water—we just want to make sure that we can manage her weaknesses and make this as good an experience for her as it will hopefully be for us. With that in mind, would you mind answering some questions regarding the best way to manage her from day one so that she has a smooth landing at our company?

If the former supervisor still won't provide any information, then state:

Jay, I have to assume that no news is bad news. Companies that have nothing to say about prior employees typically don't have anything good to say in my experience. Am I going to get burned by hiring this person?

At that point, you have nothing else to lose. Simply listen to the body language on the other end of the phone, and be sensitive to any animosity that may linger. An unwillingness to come to the candidate's aid or otherwise defend the individual's performance record at that organization may suggest that you should pursue other candidates (or at least chalk this one particular reference off to ''burned bridges'').

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