Step 5: Use your savvy when checking references
This is part 5 in our series, to start from the beginning click here.
Any applicant with a modicum of intelligence will select those people as referees who are likely to feel well-disposed towards them and to give them a good review. However, a savvy employer needs to be aware that most referees will provide a perfunctory and generally positive or benign reference for the candidate because they :
- do not want to appear negative about the person
- do not want to spend time going into detail to explain their reservations
- want to rid themselves of the candidate and make them your problem
So how do you get an honest appraisal from a referee?
Ensure that the referee is totally reassured regarding the confidentiality of any information that he provides, and then ensure that you and your selection team maintain that level of confidentiality. I have seen a situation where someone on the interviewing team mentioned to the candidate that he had received an adverse comment from one of his referees. Suffice it to say, it was an unmitigated disaster!
- If possible contact the referee from the applicant’s second most recent job. That way the referee has nothing to lose by providing you with an honest appraisal.
- Avoid general questions. Decide in advance what you are wanting to find out and then quantify the answer on a rating scale made up of an even number of responses so that choosing a midpoint is not an option eg.
- Rather than saying ‘was Mr Smith punctual?’ say…
“On a scale of 1-6, how would you rate Mr Smith’s punctuality?
1= regularly late. 2. 3. 4. 5 through to 6=extremely, diligently punctual”
- Rather than saying ‘was Mr Smith open to learning new things?’ say…
On a scale of 1-6, how would you rate Mr Smith’s willingness to learn new skills?
1=avoids leaving his comfort zone at any cost; no interest in learning new skills. 2. 3. 4. 5. through to 6= eager to learn new things, seeks out learning opportunities for himself.
Look for the general behavioural pattern that emerges from the various referees regarding your candidate. Remember the old, but very true, adage that ‘the past is a great predictor of the future’. Your candidate is most likely to display those same attributes when working with you unless something causes a fundamental shift. You need to know that what you are offering in terms of work, management style, challenge etc can facilitate that shift, or you need to heed the red flag!