In a recent post we explored the hidden costs of a bad hire and stressed the importance of taking the time and trouble to ensure that you recruit the right person in the first place.

An essential part of making a good hiring decision is obtaining the names of professional referees from every candidate and speaking to those referees over the phone. Given that an employee is the one of the biggest investments any business is ever likely to make, and the potentially disastrous consequences of hiring the wrong candidate, it is surprising how often shortcuts are taken in this vital part of the recruitment process.

What’s the difference between a referee and a reference?

A referee is not to be confused with a reference. A referee is a person who has agreed to provide a verbal report about a candidate over the phone, while a reference is a written document that may include the candidate’s work history, dates of employment, positions held and how they performed in the job. Some large companies have a policy of providing only a statement of service to confirm the candidate’s dates of employment and role, and will not discuss their character or performance.

Why is it so important to check referees?

In this article, we focus on checking a candidate’s referees. This is important because it provides independent verification of the accuracy of the information provided by the candidate and – if the right questions are asked – valuable insight into whether they have the requisite skills for the role and how they perform in the workplace. The information provided by a candidate’s résumé and interview forms only part of the picture; details and impressions gleaned from their referees complete the picture. Without them, it is impossible to make a well-informed decision.

Getting the most out of referee checks

While in large organisations referee checks are carried out by the HR department, in smaller organisations this important task may fall to a junior staff member or the business owner, who in all probability will have little knowledge or experience in this area and may already be overloaded with other tasks. They may therefore decide to skip this step altogether, or at best call the referees and rush through a list of generic questions just to get the job done.

But checking referees is not a mere ‘tick and flick’ exercise and should be done properly and thoroughly. In order for it to be effective in preventing mis-hires, it’s essential that:

  • Candidates are asked to supply the names of professional rather than personal referees. We recommend obtaining three names: ‘one above’ (a manager or HR department representative), ‘one beside’ (a colleague in a similar role) and ‘one below’ (a supplier or colleague from another department).
  • A referee’s direct business number, rather than a mobile number, is obtained to ensure that they are indeed a professional referee and not a friend. It’s useful to obtain an email address too.
  • Questions are designed around the key requirements of the role in order to elicit whether or not the candidate has the skills, experience and temperament to fulfil that role. For example, ask a question like, ‘Can you tell me about what {name of candidate} did in his role?’
  • Questions are open-ended, in order to generate a discussion with the referee. For example, ‘What would you say were {name of candidate}’s top three strengths and top three weaknesses?’,  rather than, ‘Would you say that {name of candidate} is able to work in a team environment?’ As a final question, ask the referee, ‘If you were in a position to re-hire this person in the future, would you do so? If the answer is No, ask, ‘What are the reasons behind this answer?’
  • The check is carried out by somebody skilled in this area; they will have the knowledge and experience to read between the lines and will know instinctively, based on the referee’s tone, when to probe deeper and ask follow-up questions. They will also be able to identify areas of potential concern and, crucially, know what kind of questions can and cannot be asked for legal reasons. In addition, they will be able to evaluate answers and assess where a further interview or conversation with the candidate may be justified.

The Proven Group can help you navigate this highly specialised area by checking your candidates’ referees for you.  This will  equip you with all the information you need to hire the best person for the job. With more than 20 years’ experience in recruitment, we know the right questions to ask and, more importantly, probe deeper when alarm bells start to ring.

If you’d like help with this or any other aspect of recruitment, feel free to get in touch for a confidential and no-obligation discussion.

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