Paul Barada was just about to wrap up a reference check for a candidate hoping to land a new job as a design engineer. Everything looked up for the potential employee—until Barada, president of an employee-screening firm in Rushville, Ind. and author of Reference Checking for Everyone, lobbed his final question.
“Would you hire him again?” Barada inquired.
“Sure,” the reference answered.
“What kind of job would he be best suited for?” Barada continued.
“A janitor,” came the reply.
This reference check uncovered some useful, albeit surprising information. But most entrepreneurs admit that while they do call references, it’s largely a waste of time. So, what are they doing wrong?
ASSUMING RED FLAGS ALWAYS SPELL TROUBLE
Finding out that a candidate used to “rock the boat” in her old job could be a boon for you if you’re looking for someone to shake things up. Besides, says Kirk Hill, executive director of Simon Fraser University Business’s Career Management Centre in Vancouver, a red flag “could just be a personality conflict rather than poor performance. Make sure you verify it.”
DOING THE INTERVIEW AND REFERENCE CHECK YOURSELF
If you interviewed the candidate and really liked him, you’ll be less objective when calling references, resulting in soft or leading questions guaranteed to paint the candidate in a positive light. “You’ve already decided you want to hire that person,” explains Karin Kirkpatrick, partner of recruiting firm The Karmichael Group in Vancouver, “so you don’t want to hear bad stuff.”
BEING TOO DIRECT
Asking references a very direct question, such as “What are the candidate’s weaknesses?” can put them on the spot—and cause them to clam up. Instead, try something like, “What kind of training should I look into for this candidate?” recommends Bill Greenhalgh, CEO of the Toronto-based Human Resources Professionals Association of Ontario. “It’s not pulling a trick,” he says. “It’s just trying to generate a more open discussion.”
CHECKING LATE IN THE RECRUITING PROCESS
Reference checking is often one of the last steps in hiring, but it should be one of the first, says Michael Palmer, practice leader of the Ceridian Talent Acquisition Practice in Calgary. In fact, you should start checking references as soon as you have a few candidates you want to see for a second interview. It’s extra work, but if you’re feeling great about a candidate, the reference would have to be unbelievably negative for you to change your mind.
USING THE REFERENCES HANDED TO YOU
It’s up to you to define the kinds of references you need, and the best collection should give you a 360-degree view of the applicant. So, don’t just call the list of references a candidate offers—unless they’ve listed a former or current boss, colleague and subordinate. (If it’s a sales position, ask for a client, too.)
THINKING AN EXCELLENT REFERENCE GUARANTEES A WIN
It’s called “the halo effect” or “the fine fellow syndrome.” Sometimes, a reference just won’t say anything bad about the candidate. But never assume it’s because he or she walks on water. People can be afraid to say anything negative, worried they’ll be sued. It runs the other way, too. A current boss or colleague might badmouth the candidate simply to keep him from going to the competition. As a rule, be skeptical about anything you hear until you’ve been able to verify it.
The Web offers myriad information about applicants that you’d never be able to find otherwise. For example, online social- and business-networking sites such as Spoke and LinkedIn can help you communicate with people who have a personal or professional relationship with a candidate. And never forget to Google your potential hires. Just about everyone leaves a trail of good, bad and ugly online, which you can ask references to corroborate.