3 Easy Hacks for Checking a Reference
The Hiring Manager’s Guide to Getting the Information You Really Need
Ask any understaffed hiring manager with a million things to do and not enough hours in the day to get them done: is it really worth your time to check references? Sure, you know you’re supposed to do it. But what’s the point when the only thing an employer will share is job title and dates? And everyone else on the reference list? They’re only on that list because they’re a sure thing. They’re going to give your candidate a glowing reference.
Yes, reference checking can seem like a fruitless waste of time. But consider this: according to a new CareerBuilder survey, a stunning 75% of HR managers have uncovered lies on applicants’ resumes. That number may surprise you. It surprised me. But it shouldn’t have. The truth is, it’s easy to be swept away by an impressive resume, especially when that resume is reinforced by an engaging, convincing interview. You need to check references. Multiple references, for every candidate. If your process has been taking too much time and yielding too little information, try these proven shortcuts.
1. Get Work-Related Personal References
Organizations may not be eager to share opinions on a candidate’s qualifications. But there are individuals who have worked with your candidate and have insights into their strengths, accomplishments and potential for the job you’re filling. Ask your candidate to provide names and contact information for what I like to call work-related personal references. Be specific. Ask for a former manager, former subordinate, former peer and, if relevant, former client. These are the people who can vouch for the claims your candidate made on the resume and, more importantly, speak to your candidate’s strengths and potential. Former colleagues who have left the company where they worked with your candidate are your best bet for a sincere reference. When you do reach out to these individuals, reassure them that you’re not asking them to speak on behalf of the employer company. You simply want to know about their personal observations from working alongside the candidate.
2. Work that Employer Call
You still need to make the employer call to verify job title and dates. But as long as you have someone on the phone, it’s pretty quick and easy to slide in some additional questions. Start by clarifying the meaning of the job titles. Ask for job descriptions. Could they send you copies? Does each job include a range of responsibilities and required qualifications that matches what the resume claims? This can be an especially revealing exercise when candidate’s make claims about their leadership, oversight or direct supervision accountabilities. Ask if the candidate is eligible for re-hire. Getting a no does not necessarily sink your candidate’s chances. But it will require a frank discussion about the reasons for their ineligibility.
3. Networking Sites: Your Reference Checking Speed Lane
When you get permission to check references, be sure you don’t limit your request to the names on the list provided by the candidate. Some of your best sources of information are networking sites like LinkedIn and the professional recommendations you find there. Look through the endorsements and recommendations. Do you recognize any names, have your own personal connections to any of these people? Reach out to these people and hear what they have to say. A well-prepared job seeker has carefully curated their LinkedIn site to impress you and other potential employers. But they may have valid reasons they don’t want you reaching out to certain individuals (like current clients or employers) who have commented favorably but don’t know the candidate is job hunting. With your candidate’s permission, reach out with a 2-part InMail or similar note. First, simply ask if they’re willing to talk about their work experiences with the candidate. Once you get a yes, ask behavior-based, open-ended questions to validate past successes, skills and other qualifications:
- What was the candidate’s role when you worked together?
- What were the greatest results you saw achieved while working with this candidate?
- What are this candidate’s greatest strengths?
- Where would you like to have seen the candidate make improvements?
- What kind of work environment brings out the best in this candidate and their work?
- How would you describe this person’s management style?
- What kind of manager would be the ideal manager for this candidate?
- Would you work with this person again? Why or Why not?
The keys to a successful reference check are creativity, curiosity and acute listening. Ask the right probing questions and listen carefully to the words, the tone and overall level of enthusiasm for this candidate’s abilities, motivations and ethics. Make note of long pauses and vague, non-committal answers. And be very aware if anyone is unable to provide specific work examples and a solid description of successes and results. While it sounds great to hear someone gush on about how “amazing” the candidate is, you need to hear facts that back that claim up. A reference that consists of little more than complimentary adjectives and empty platitudes is a strong sign that there isn’t much more there.