On the surface, a reference check's purpose is to verify a candidate's background information: Education, work history, job title, salary, professional accomplishments and so forth.
Due diligence, after all, should play a key role in any important decision. And as recruiters, it's our professional responsibility to make sure the hiring managers we work with are empowered by the data we provide, and protected against misrepresentation, deliberate or otherwise.
To the savvy recruiter however, a reference check is much more than a fact checking exercise. It's a vast ocean of information to explore, and an invaluable tool that can turn doubt into confidence.
There are several different objectives—and potential objectives—with respect to reference checking. These range from the obvious, like making sure everything lines up properly in the candidate's chronology, to the less obvious, such as exploring marketing and lead-generation opportunities with the person you're talking to.
But there's one objective that's mostly overlooked by recruiters. And that's the chance to cross-reference the prospective employer's concerns about the candidate, and find out whether any perceived weaknesses are real, relevant or potentially game-ending.
Here's an example. Let's say the prospective employer you’re working with and your candidate have interviewed with each other a couple of times. Both meetings went well. At the conclusion of your second-level interview debriefing with the candidate, you correctly ask the closing question, "Do you want the job?" and the candidate says yes. Later, at the end of your debrief with the hiring manager, you ask if he likes that person and wants to move forward, and he says yes. So then you ask the question, "Should I go ahead and contact the candidate's references and verify his degree?" To which the hiring manager says, "Yes, by all means."
Now, here's the point at which most recruiters end the conversation, go off on their merry way and start calling the references.
What you should do is slow down. Take a deep breath. And ask the following question. "Are there any areas of concern you have about the candidate? And if so, is there a question I can ask the references that might be useful in evaluating the candidate with respect to that concern and how it could potentially impact the candidate's performance, if that person were to join your team?"
Now, you might think this is exactly the wrong path to take. In other words, why inject the element of doubt in the employer's head—or worse, reinforce a potential negative?
My answer is that the concern is going to be there anyway. And if that’s the case, I'd rather get it out in the open and deal with it now than sweep it under the rug and let it become a big problem later.
Besides, the most powerful aspect of a reference check is the ability to focus on the exact issue that concerns the prospective employer and let a disinterested third party allay that fear. If I, the recruiter, were to try to deal with the concern, it would probably be seen as an attempt to serve my own interests at the expense of the employer’s.
But if the former employer can vouch for the candidate, the whole issue can be put to rest—or depending on the judgment of the previous supervisor, might even have the effect of converting a negative into a positive. In sales, we call this technique "closing on the objection." And it can be a beautiful thing.
If it turns out the hiring manager's concerns are well-founded, I suggest you ask the same question to the next reference—and the next. If there's unanimity of opinion, it's your duty to report back what the references have said about the candidate. You may not be thrilled by this turn of events, but at least you've done your duty, by providing accurate information that can be used to weigh the candidate's suitability for the job.
If there's no clear consensus regarding the concern, it's also your job to put the feedback on the table, or even encourage a dialogue (if it's appropriate to the situation) between the references and the new employer.
I've learned that if you work proactively, reference checks can work not only to your advantage—but to everyone's advantage. On the flip side, being in denial or delegating the reference checking process to people who are less experienced only closes the door on opportunities. And once that door is closed, it can be a real struggle to get it opened again.
- Bill Radin
Bill Radin is a top-producing recruiter whose innovative books, tapes, CDs and training seminars have helped thousands of recruiting professionals and search consultants achieve peak performance and career satisfaction. Bill’s extensive experience makes him an ideal source of techniques, methods and ideas for rookies who want to master the fundamentals—or veterans ready to jump to a higher level of success.