Handling employee references

No matter how great a candidate seems, how appealing, how experienced, how perfect a fit, you’re looking for trouble if you don’t check references before making an offer. Better to get any bad news by reference and not have to experience it in the workplace.

If the worst happens and you have to go back to the recruitment drawing board, it’s still less disruptive to have to do it as a new set of administrative hassles. Plus, you won’t have to go through the heartache of removing or reassigning a new employee, and waste weeks of training and acclimation.

Reality check

It’s true that many human resource departments allow giving only dates of employment and compensation. This used to be the default corporate stance out of fear of liability.

But if you get signed releases from applicants specifying that you have permission to ask about their work experience, most references will feel that it’s safe to talk to you in confidence and candidly. When you speak with the reference, explain that the candidate has signed a release, and be prepared to fax or e-mail a copy of the signed release for the reference’s files.

Who and how you ask for the reference and the way you ask are both important. If you’re funneled to the HR or personnel department, you may still get only verification of name, rank and serial number. So you must get the name of a direct manager (or at least a close colleague) from the candidate. And it’s reasonable to be wary of candidates who claim to be unable to provide reference information.

During the interview process, as you ask candidates contextual and behavioral questions (see “Hire Power; Power Hiring, October 2008 issue), you can check from time to time: “and will your references say the same thing about you?” Sometimes this probe will lead the candidate to explain situations more fully, or conversely, to hew a little closer to reality.

What should you ask them?

These are some questions and topics you may want to cover with references:

  • After a brief explanation of the job, ask why Reference thinks Candidate is interested.

  • Why does Candidate want to leave the current job? (Or, if reference is from a prior employer, Why did candidate leave this organization?) Follow-up questions in this area include: What would Candidate’s next natural career step in your company be? Why would Candidate perceive this job opportunity as being more desirable than that natural next step?

  • Describe any job responsibilities or conditions that you think may pose any difficulties for the candidate. Ask if Reference believes that Candidate will be successful and happy in the job, and to explain why. Ask which of Candidate’s strengths will come into play. Ask if there are ways to structure the job or training or working conditions to help support or counteract any of Candidate’s weaknesses.

  • Ask if Reference thinks this will be an easy job or a stretch job — and why.

  • Ask about contextual information like fit with colleagues and effectiveness and accomplishment. Probe for how much accomplishment was individually, as opposed to team, generated. If peer interviews were part of your screening process, you can use any specifics as probes, for example: “Some of Candidate’s potential colleagues were concerned that he has a tendency to act unilaterally; did you find that?”

It’s remarkable how candid many references will be if you keep the discussion conversational and show your level of interest in their opinions and the potential success of the candidate. The more you demonstrate that you’re a “real person” and that you care deeply about your work and how well the candidate will work out, the more committed most references will be to helping you.

If the references’ comments jibe with the candidate’s information and your sense of things, then you’re probably ready to make an offer. If you feel something is awry, you can present the candidate with the concern, ask for additional references, or even go so far as to conclude that there’s too much risk to proceed any further with this individual.

Whatever you decide, tell candidates where they stand as soon as you can so that they retain a positive impression of your firm whether you hire them or not. You never know when there will be another opportunity to consider them. What’s more, someone you turn down kindly today could eventually be recruiting for a job that you desperately want!

Liz Kislik (lizk@lizkislik.com) is president of consultancy Liz Kislik Associates.

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