Don’t be a recruitment zombie! Check references carefully.

A decorative sign I purchased recently for Halloween reminded me of two things:

1) How my teenager looks in the morning when walking from her bedroom to the  kitchen.

2) The reference check stage in the recruitment process and why it’s important to avoid zombie-itis.

zombie crossing sign

I had a case of zombie-itis a few years ago when I helped select a candidate who turned out to be a nightmare for my client. On paper and during interviews the candidate was a bright shiny experienced professional ready to save the day. What actually followed were several painful months of sub rate performance and eventual dismissal of the employee.

Could we have foreseen this? Yes. There was a comment in one of the reference checks which in retrospect I should have delved deeper on, but due to zombie-itis I over looked it. So did the hiring manager.

Sure, there were mitigating circumstances at the time such as gruelling workloads and talent shortages – it was during the peak of the mining boom in Australia. Lesson hard learned. Fortunately the hiring manager pardoned my mistake and has subsequently engaged me to assist with hiring other team members – who have been a success.

Ever since the bad hire incident I re-focus at reference stage (as I do when my teenager walks toward me in the morning) because you never know what you are going to hear when you pick up the phone (or talk to a teenager), and you have to be willing to really listen.

The risk of zombie-itis setting in at reference stage is heightened because after a lengthy recruitment process of vetting resumes (sometimes hundreds), conducting interviews and whittling down to a select few, a hiring manager and recruiter may become process weary. In some circumstances they’ve made up their mind and just want to confirm what they think they know about the candidate. Reference checking can feel tedious. It’s the 11th hour, everyone’s had too much chocolate and is hoping to wrap up the party.

Maintain vigilance! As I point out in my first book, reference checking is an essential part of the due diligence of a hiring process. It’s another data collection point which helps to build a multi dimensional view of a candidate and it’s actually a high value step within the overall recruitment process.

Let’s be realistic, references are not a perfect evaluation method though. Educated recruiters and hiring managers know references are fraught with bias. Several research studies have exposed the fact that the reliability of the employment reference can be questioned. Chamorro-Premuzic and Furnham, authors of The Psychology of Personnel Selection, believe that “when referees retrieve information about candidates their judgement is already clouded by emotional information . . . references have more to do with the compatibility between referee and candidate than with the candidate’s suitability for the job.” In my second book I warn readers that references are just as much about the referee as the candidate. Nevertheless, references are an assessment method worth using as part of the overall recruitment process.

Reference checking is a part of the process many companies aren’t doing well. They ask for bare minimum information from referee’s and are too quick to tick the box. Any assessment in the recruitment process is only as good as the questions asked and the data gathered. That’s why I advocate for diligence with references – because past employers have real world knowledge of how the candidate performs in a work environment.

Tips to avoid becoming a recruitment zombie at the reference check stage:

– Recency and reporting relationships matter. Seek references from three previous managers, preferably in the last five (5) year period. If you can obtain 360 degree references (three previous managers, a previous peer and a previous subordinate) even better.

– Ask the candidate to touch base with their referee’s and suggest they send each a copy of their resume. That way the referee has the information (such as employment dates) ready for when the recruiter calls.

– Use the standard questions plus tailor the reference check to be relevant to the position, especially technical skill questions. Tailor the reference to be job specific and ask relevant questions, otherwise you are wasting their time and yours.

– Schedule a time in advance with the referee so the conversation isn’t rushed.

– Open your ears and your mind, take off the rose coloured glasses. The reference stage offers valuable insights about how the candidate performs in different environments and under different management styles.

– Be courageous when speaking with the referee. Don’t be a slave to the script. Delve deeper if you spot an indication to do so. A few skeletons in the closet doesn’t mean the candidate shouldn’t be hired. No candidate is perfect, hearing unfavourable information just means you have a more rounded view of the person.

– Collect and share all the information you discover with the hiring manager.

I trust this article will help you avoid becoming a recruitment zombie. Take the time to check candidate references carefully to help reduce the risk of a bad hire and to ensure you make an informed hiring decision.

(I welcome your advice on how to manage bouts of teenage zombie-itis!)

About the Author

Shireen DuPreez

I’m a corporate recruiter with more than 10 years of experience helping organisations hire talent at all levels.

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