Looking to Reduce Hiring Mistakes? Don’t Skip the Reference Check!

Looking to Reduce Hiring Mistakes? Don’t Skip the Reference Check!

by Sara Bennett | November 4, 2019

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The Case for Making Reference Checks an Important Part of  Your Hiring Process !

It never ceases to amaze me how seldom I am called upon to provide a reference for one of our former employees.  In most cases, I know that my reference “really doesn’t matter” – i.e. that what a hiring manager “sees”  in their interview with our former employee will absolutely be what they “get” when that employee starts work.    These are PACE employees who are stellar and would do a  “good job” wherever they work.

For other employees, I have to wonder what convinced a hiring manager to hire them without first checking with their former employer.   These are employees,  who,  for any number of reasons had “issues” that didn’t work well  in our environment, and “may not” work in theirs.  We get to know our employees pretty well – so all a potential employer would have to do is ask and we could provide helpful info on what type of job or work environment would suit them best.  We would never predict a hiring mistake, but we certainly can offer a perspective on the performance of an employee that you can’t get on your own.

For me personally if I had to choose only one venue I could use to vet a candidate before hiring them, that venue would be the reference check.   If  the best predictor of a candidate’s future performance is their performance in the past, there is no one who knows about past performance like someone who has seen that performance first hand.     

And while we all know that a  reference provider can be as “subjective” as the candidate, just comparing the reference providers subjective information with the candidate’s subjective information can provide important insights into what you might experience from a candidate once hired.

From my perspective, the reference check trumps the interview, the resume, even professionally constructed skill or aptitude assessments as the tool that can most reliably predict on the job performance. 

The resume is prepared by the candidate and can only reveal so much about how they will perform once hired.  And if we are to believe the resume pundits, 75-85% of all resumes contain some significant mis presentation of what the candidate has done.

While interviews are necessary and helpful,  most are not conducted in ways that avoid the subjective nature of a candidate’s responses or the biases inherent in how interviewers interpret those responses.

While skill and aptitude tests are helpful, even their creators know they need to be combined with other evaluative data to be of value.

Only the reference check provides information in the vetting process not provided by the candidate. 

Here’s just a few examples of the type of information you can uncover in a reference check that will help you round out your picture of a candidate BEFORE  you make them your employee:

  • What the employee actually did or contributed to an important team or individual  result, different from what might listed on a candidate prepared  resume.    Were they a key player in those results?  A strong contributor? Or just someone who happened to enjoy a result they didn’t really personally produce?
  • How did the employee get along with all others on the job…….not just their chosen few.  How did they behave in difficult situations or where their views conflicted with coworkers?  Does their past behavior in these types of situations “match” the behavior you want in your culture?
  • What has or is motivating  the candidate to take and leave jobs?    To avoid unnecessary turnover, you have to make sure that what your job has to offer is more aligned with what motivates the employee (really) – definitely different from jobs they have quit or been terminated from in the past.
  • How is the employee best managed.  How do they react to feedback?  How do they respond to training?   How do they deal with change?  These are things that often make a difference in an employee who will be able to contribute long term in your work environment – an employee you can continue to develop.
  • How was their record of attendance?  How reliable were they in delivering the results needed in the timeframes available?   Were they clock watchers, or did they go above and beyond to “make a difference?”  Work ethic is relative, and you can’t always discover this information from a self-report.

One of the most valuable learnings you get from checking a reference is the opportunity to learn if an employee’s self-reports match up with another point of view.

If a candidate can’t provide you with the name of someone who has supervised them directly, that’s definitely a red flag.  But if the candidate’s previous supervisor can’t confirm what the candidate has told you in their interview, that could b e an even redder flag.

When our staff checks references for example, we always ask a past employer to confirm (or contradict) information the candidate provided us in their interview.

Roger said that their employment was in “good standing” when they elected to quit for a job they thought was a better fit for them.  Are you able to confirm why Roger quit and his employment status at the time? 

While it can be disheartening when a candidate’s story doesn’t line up with what you learn in a reference check, it’s better to have those “red flag” experiences before you hire rather than 6-12 months later – when a problematic behavior surfaces that would have been detected if you had only checked a reference. 

At best a disconnect between a candidate’s story and the story told by your reference provider, should signal the need to dig deeper.  There are candidates who think nothing of purposefully misrepresenting their employment history, hoping a prospective employer won’t check.   Others are out of touch with the “realities” of their own performance and will bring their habits of blaming and excuse making to your work place.  Still others are simply telling their story from a different perspective – and the differences are harmless.

Knowing the difference is what matters.

From our perch, as we watch how employers find and vet candidates in the digital marketplace, and end up making hiring decisions they later regret, we have to believe that one of the underlying reasons is how easy it is for employees in today’s hot job market to change jobs.  If an employee has a bad day, all they have to do is post their resume, and wait for an “anxious to hire” employer to take the bait.

We think its way too easy for employees to avoid real commitment or dodge issues in their performance by simply moving on.  Unfortunately they take their lack of commitment and/or their performance issues with them – which tend to  show up wherever they work, creating a  “hiring mistake” for an employer who didn’t take the time to check.

There are times when a reference check with the current employer isn’t possible.  But rather than talking to  a co worker, who has a completely different vantage point than a supervisor, there is another technique you might consider.  How about making an offer of employment contingent on your ability to confirm that the “interview data” you’ve obtained from the candidate match up with what you will uncover in a reference check conducted following the employee’s notice.     This is a risky tactic  for candidates who know their story and their supervisor’s story won’t match up,  but for the employer,  it might be a hiring mistake worth avoiding.

About On Line Reference Surveys

A recent advance is the use of on line reference check technology.  We have used this feature with exceptional results.  We get responses from our digital surveys within hours of queries;  we can uncover false reference information early in the process before our client’s waste time evaluating a candidate whose references will not verify their self-reports.   We also get the benefit of candidates who tend to be more forthcoming in their interviews knowing that what they self-report will be checked with a previous employer.

At PACE we also advocate that either one of our recruiters or our client themselves do a more in depth phone reference prior to extending an offer.  Talking live with a previous employer will not only give one more way to  gather up some potentially important information that have been missed by other steps in the vetting process,  but also to get some ideas about how to best onboard the employee into their new role.

While there’s no one strategy that will eliminate all hiring mistakes, there are pieces of the hiring process that can be improved to reduce the more obvious miscues.  The reference check is one of those. 

Rather than thinking of the reference check as an annoyance to be tacked on at the end of a rigorous hiring process, consider using it early in the process as a way to obtain information about previous performance that can be invaluable in predicting future performance.

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PACE Staffing Network is one of the Puget Sound’s premier staffing /recruiting agencies and has been helping Northwest  employers find and hire employees based on the “right fit” for over 40 years.

A  3 time winner of the coveted “Best in Staffing” designation , PACE is ranked in the top 2% of staffing agencies nationwide based on annual surveys of customer satisfaction.

PACE services include temporary and contract staffing, temp to hire auditions, direct hire professional recruiting services, Employer of Record (payroll) services, and a large menu of candidate assessment services (including reference checks) our clients can purchase a la carte.

To learn more about how partnering with PACE will make a difference to how you find and hire employees,  contact us at 425-637-3312 or e mail our Partner Solutions  team  at partnerservices@pacestaffing.com.


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