Getting Real Information from Reference Checks

IT IS OF T ENS AID that no matter how skilled the interviewer, interviewing is at best a limited activity with restricted potential to predict on-the-job performance. And I agree that this is perfectly true. While you're at it, you could throw references into the same argument. Past employers rarely share performance problems with you, nor will they reveal patterns of inconsistencies or obstacles that past workers experienced. And don't forget about aptitude tests: Capacity for analytical problem solving has very little bearing on daily performance or street smarts gained from the school of hard knocks.

So, why don't you just hire whoever happens to walk in the front door? Because experience bears out that taking interview feedback, references, and tests into consideration paints a much more reliable picture of an individual's probable performance on the job. Although no one exercise in the employee selection process can guarantee future work habits, multiple evaluations and assessments will increase the probability of locating highperformance individuals whose business and personal styles match your organization's corporate culture.

References are critical elements in the candidate selection process. Unlike interviews, reference checks provide objective, third-party feedback of what it's like working with the candidate on a day-to-day basis. Who better than the individual's past supervisor to comment on strengths, weaknesses, pace, interpersonal communications, and aptitudes? And unlike tests, reference checks have real-world application—they're not just measurements of pure intelligence in a vacuum. Indeed, making employment offers without having spoken to past supervisors is like having a loose cannon on the deck of your ship. Without that human evaluation element, you risk missing the historic dimension of working side by side with the candidate. You also run the risk of getting snared by the so-called professional interviewer who interviews much better than he or she actually performs on the job.

The questions that follow are designed to provide you with critical insights regarding a candidate s historical work performance. Up to now, you've asked candidates to evaluate themselves in comparison with their peers. You've measured their abilities to reduce operating expenses, save time, and increase the work flow. You' ve gauged their understanding of how their jobs met their departments key strategic objectives and what roles their departments played in making their prior companies successful. And you've consistently employed behavior-based interviewing questions to ensure that candidates put their initial responses into a real-world context, thereby avoiding canned, superficial answers.

Still, you have only a one-sided argument until you bounce your findings off the other key player who has the ability to confirm the information you've developed: the candidate s immediate past supervisor. This individual is the only person in the universe capable of verifying your insights into this prospective new hire s ability to make an impact on your company and rectifying, if you will, any distorted images of the candidate s history. So, if it sounds as if you've got a few more rounds of interviews lined up once you' ve gotten your finalist candidate in sight... congratulations, you understand where we re going with this topic!

Reference checks are fairly quick, easy, and painless to perform. Compared to the hours that go into interviewing and testing candidates, they have the biggest payback in terms of reward to effort. The questions that follow could themselves be used during the interview. However, they lend themselves better to third-party evaluations than they do to direct communication with a candidate. After all, few if any candidates would admit to having problems accepting constructive criticism, handling interruptions and breaks in their routine, or hustling to meet deadlines.

Of course, if you would like to employ some of these questions during an interview, you could phrase them in a behavioral format during your meeting like this: ''Tell me, Tom, about the last time some outside influence negatively affected your job performance. And you d very well get an honest answer that was indeed grounded in reality. Still, the nature of that issue is better judged by a past supervisor than by the candidate sitting in front of you during an interview.

A special note of interest: If the candidate s past company is out of business or if former supervisors can t be found to pass judgment on the individual s performance, request a recent annual performance appraisal as a condition of hire. It should provide you with fairly objective feedback regarding the individual s strengths, weaknesses, and areas for further training.

Furthermore, beware of past employers who refuse to comment on a candidate' s performance. One neutral reference who verifies only dates of employment and last title held may merely be following the company s official reference policies, but too many such employers ''taking the fifth'' may indicate there were problems with the individual s work. Human nature dictates that past supervisors will help former subordinates whom they liked find other jobs. When minimum disclosure patterns begin to occur, on the other hand, it s sometimes because past supervisors would rather say nothing than say something negative about a past employee. If you find that more than one or two former employers refuse to take your calls or strictly quote dates and title, instruct candidates to contact their past employers themselves and bridge the reference gap for you.

Finally, remember that this is not a legal treatise aimed at addressing the legal subtleties surrounding confidential and privileged communications between employers regarding candidates references. Nor is it a forum for discussing employee privacy rights and the potential for accusations of libel, slander, defamation, and negligent hiring. Such issues go beyond the scope of this book and require legal counsel and guidance.

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