Do You Know Who You Hired? Why Reference Checks Matter

Andy Adams is a Sr. Account Executive with CareerPlug, whose background includes extensive recruiting experience.  He has spent time in the trenches as an agency contract recruiter, as well as a direct hire recruiter.  Once a month, we have asked him to share his insights, tips, and advice on a particular recruiting topic.

Reference checks are more important than just finding out if a person worked where they said they used to and performed their essential job functions.  That is important, yes, but it is also crucial to note that reference checks are extremely valuable in learning how well someone performed their essential job functions, how they fit into the team and culture, what their personality is like, and why they really left previous roles.  All of these factors are pivotal in selecting your next team member, particularly for small or growing companies.  After all, there have been plenty of studies to show the cost of making a bad hire.

When I first started in recruiting, one of the most exciting phrases to hear from a hiring manager was “We want to make an offer to your candidate.”  That sentence was always followed by “as long as their references check out.  Can your forward those to me?”  At this point, remember – when I first started, I usually panicked because I had forgotten to ask for and/or check references.  I would be too enamored with the awesome candidate I had unearthed and overlooked this crucial step.  On one occasion, this lead to a candidate taking another offer because she had that offer in hand and didn’t need to bother with getting me references so late in the process…so, I started all over. And quickly learned my lesson.

I have also learned, over time, how important it is from a recruiting and hiring perspective to use references to get a holistic view of a candidate.  Sometimes candidates downplay their strengths to look like more of a team player; sometimes they do the opposite and exaggerate their contributions to make themselves look better.  There are several ways to dig in to a person’s experience when checking references, so I’ve offered up a few tips below.

reference-check2How Well Did Suzy Perform?

As I mentioned before, it’s important to know more than if someone did a job they said they did.  You want to know how well they did their job.  Whether you’re talking to a previous supervisor or co-worker always ask for specific and measurable examples of how someone performed.  What were the person’s goals and how did they perform against them? How did this person compare to other members of the team? Tell me about a time this person went above and beyond to achieve a certain deliverable and how they did it?

All of the above questions create an open dialogue with the reference and allow you to follow-up and dig in on their answers.  Simply asking yes/no questions won’t do you any good. If the answers to the questions above are that the person hit their goals 50% of the time, performed better than only about half of the team members, and an example couldn’t be cited of them going above and beyond for a project…maybe they aren’t the best fit for you. At the very least, it would give you some things you’d want to dig in to.

Will Charlie Fit Into Our Culture?

Just as important as finding out about job performance is making sure someone will be a good fit culturally and personality wise.  Someone that doesn’t fit into your culture may not be motivated to perform at the highest level.  At the same time, someone who has personality conflicts with those around can cause the performance of the whole team to tank.

This is a little more difficult to gauge when checking a reference. Ultimately, this person was cited as a reference because they more than likely like the person you are looking to hire.  For that reason, it is very important to dig in and ask about interactions with other members of the team, how they handled conflict, how were the team dynamics before and after they were hired, etc.  Again, these questions create open dialogue and allow you to clarify certain points.  If your team is a well-oiled machine of quiet, introverted, hard workers, someone who is loud, boisterous, and very extroverted may disrupt the harmony of the team.

I once recruited a gentleman for a leading retailer that had a very open and collaborative type of environment.  He was an introvert.  Tell him what to do and he would do it, but he wasn’t going to bring new ideas to the table.  He was a true worker bee…which is great in the right environment.  This wasn’t the right environment.  Shortly after he started, he was seen as disengaged, uninterested, and not a team player despite doing everything that was asked of him.  It began to make him uncomfortable and he ultimately left the company.

Why Did You Leave ABC Company?reference-check

When you ask a candidate why they left a certain company, very rarely are you going to hear “I was fired for making inappropriate comments to the interns.” Or “I was let go because I got caught napping in the supply closet.”  Candidates will always paint themselves in the best light, so it is important when checking references to dig into why they left a previous role.  If the reason the candidate gives you and the reason the reference gives you are vastly different, you may have an integrity issue on your hands and need to re-evaluate if you want someone like that on your team.

Reference checks are just another tool in your selection process to allow you to make the best hiring decision.  Making a bad hire can cost you time, money, and productivity, while taking the time to do your due diligence and make the right hire can help take your team or company to the next level.

For more hiring and recruiting tips follow us on Twitter @CareerPlug

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