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Teaching and training companies how to check references effectively and efficiently is one of the many techniques I teach my clients. Each method we put into practice builds on the successful application of the prior step in successful talent strategy implementation. In other words, each piece of our process stands on the shoulders of the one before it. Reference checking is no exception.
How do you know if you’re getting the truth?

There are many items to consider when reference checking and many live in a gray area. I will discuss those gray areas in greater detail when I get to them.

The most important piece of the reference checking step is to create proper expectations around the reference check. Let the applicant know what to expect from you if/when you decide to move to the offer stage. This should be done prior to the first formal interview. Let’s say I’m having a “get to know each other” conversation with a candidate. In this conversation both the candidate and I determine it makes sense to move the interview. At this time I would tell the candidate about our reference checking methods and ask if they would have any conflicts or concerns. This way, any possible conflicts can be resolved (or not) before any further time and energy is expended.
Asking a candidate to sign a release form allowing their former employer to provide real answers to questions beyond the usual employment verification is a potential strategy, but may or may not work. First, no one aside from the direct manager is really qualified to have this conversation with you. The person who did the exit interview isn’t even qualified as the information is second hand. You will need to be able to find the manager. The farther back you go the more difficult – though not impossible – this becomes. In addition, you can’t talk to this person if your candidate is still employed there. Consequently you may not be able to get accurate references from some former employers. Another thing to be cognizant of is if the candidate provides the reference it will be positive. No one with any sense would give the name of someone unwilling to provide a glowing recommendation. Be sure to get a copy of the release to the individual(s) giving references prior to you calling them. Be aware that laws vary among states so check with your attorneys.
Have questions prepared in advance of the conversation. You don’t want to “wing it”. Put a script together for checking references on each different type of hire that is specific to both job requirements and cultural requirements.
Pay attention to all feedback, positive, neutral and negative. Ask follow up questions to get clarity whenever necessary. I recently read a post on how to check references and the author suggested not making an offer to a candidate that received a negative reference. This is foolish. It’s just not that black and white. It’s imperative to look at the specifics around the review to determine if they even apply to the job the candidate is being considered for. For example, if the job is for a sales “farmer” and the negative reference came from a company where your prospect was in a “hunter” role, you better delve in more deeply. There could be a multitude of reasons a candidate is given a negative or positive reference that has nothing whatsoever to do with the job in question.
Be specific when it comes to questioning references. Use stories that candidate told you in their interviews and ask the reference to talk about the same story. Compare notes. Ask follow up questions for clarification.
Check “blind” references. As I mentioned in #2, candidates don’t provide negative references so you will need to find people who know the candidate that will be candid and objective (you need to be responsible for asking smart questions that will give you the objective answers you seek) with you. There is a very effective way to find blind references and get them to speak with you confidentially. I once had a VP of Americas tell me that he’d never had a recruiter give him this type of information and that he was both grateful and impressed.
Get concrete evidence of salary history. People frequently lie about their income. W2s help, but are not foolproof. Find a method to get accurate salary history and use it. Be sure the candidate knows you’re going to need this information ahead of time. See item #1 about expectations.
Verify employment history. This is not as easy as it may appear or as easy as some people might lead you to believe. Some candidates lie about their job history, possibly more often than they lie about income. When I was still recruiting I can remember many occasions that I received resumes from candidates and, upon looking at the prior one they’d sent (I keep everything on my hard drive), the dates were different and jobs had mysteriously disappeared. I’ve had candidates tell me (whom I chose not to represent) that the company went out of business or merged with a larger one and there were no people to call for verification. I use a method that is nearly foolproof and if you tell that candidate about it prior in the early stages as I suggest above, you will also weed out the liars and save yourself the trouble of even getting to this stage.
Each of the items I’ve mentioned is important and must be done. I know that this process can appear labor intensive, but it’s far better than the alternative…turnover, and turnover costs you money. These steps should be followed regardless of the level of the candidate. One recent case that comes to mind is Mark Hurd, former CEO of HP. My point is not to judge Mr. Hurd in any way. My point is to look at the costs involved in both his exit and his replacement. Yes he performed well for HP from a financial standpoint, but did the search firm retained by HP really do their due diligence when it came to truly checking out his history or were they more interested in their 6 figure fee?

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