Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Checking References: Overlooked and Underrated

Donald Trump, famous real estate mogul and noted for television boardroom firing, has an important rule for his own business, "Hire slowly, fire quickly." He is an advocate of knowing the people you hire. In his famous show, "The Apprentice," he challenged promising hopeful future Trump employees to compete difficult marketing, sales and management tasks. He evaluated their performance, working style and personality throughout the process before selecting his apprentice. Getting that kind of insight into a job candidate never happens in real life. At a time when jobs are tough to find, employers should have the edge and competition for a single job may hinge on the positive recommendation by a former employer. Interesting thing is, many employers don't take the time to check references. Compelled by a charming candidate in one interview, that singular mistake can stick an employer with a troublesome employee.

So, even knowing the importance of the reference-checking process, why would an employer avoid it? Surprisingly, many people overrate their ability to read people. They feel that an interview will reveal all. Reference checking is hard and an inconvenient and uncomfortable process. Unless someone has never been employed before, it always involves an employee who has "left his/her employment." Unless the change was the result of relocation, the separation occurred for a reason and that reason can be difficult to ascertain.

Reference checking can be tough on employers as well as employees. Employees may be leaving a bad employment situation that is not their fault. Personality conflicts can happen and there are bad managers that may provide negative references that prevent a person from starting over with a new job. Former employers may not be completely revealing for fear of retribution. How can we deal with this challenge? For future employers reference checking is essential. Never avoid this step. Here are a few tips on making your reference checking meaningful:

If you interview before you check references, ask the candidate which references you should contact and what they might say. If a job seeker says, "Please don't contact my former employer," then all the flags should go up. There are probably legitimate reasons for this (the candidate is still employed, the company is downsizing or there were conflicts at the workplace) yet you still need to know (and verify) what they are before you commit.

Start by checking the facts. Combined with a resume and interview, a reference check will give you significant clues as to how an employee may work with your company. At a minimum verify the facts a potential employee provided. Aside from the basics (length of employment, wages, job title), check that "assistant to the administrator" and "administrative assistant" mean the same in the former workplace. Any discrepancy should be noted and discussed with the job candidate.

Ask the right questions of the right people. If you need guidance, check with your HR department or attorney. Often reference checking happens after an interview and employers are looking to confirm how they already feel. That can cause overlooking "red flags" or facts that contradict preconceived opinions. Be quiet and listen carefully to what is said and more importantly, not said. Ask the same questions for each candidate to someone who worked with him or her. Ask about candidates' actual responsibilities and how well they performed them. Find out if candidates worked well with others, worked best independently or with a team, and about advancement and attendance and attitude. If you are making progress with the reference you may ask about the candidates' best qualities and areas that could use improvement or attention (pay attention to that one). Finally, find out why the employee left the position and if the previous employer would rehire this candidate. That is a significantly different question than, "Is this person 'eligible' for rehire." If you are very lucky, the reference will let you know if you should or should not hire the candidate.

Finally, remember that finding the right team member is difficult and it is even challenging for Trump. With all the information he receives from reality television, the decision isn't always clear. A good lesson from "The Apprentice" is that hiring is as much about who you eliminate as who triumphs in the process. Use the tools at your disposal, like thorough reference checks, to make the best decision for you and your company.

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