I recently read an interesting article Dr. John Sullivan posted on ERE.Net. The article, entitled "What's Wrong With Reference Checks, Part One," says in essence that reference checks tend to suck. His take on employment reference checks may be a little harsh but not entirely inaccurate. But then, like most things, the devil is in the details.
Dr. Sullivan lists certain potential discrepancies concerning reference checks and how they can be problematic or not return worthwhile information. Unlike criminal records searches, which just about every employer uses as part of their employment screening program, reference checks are not so absolute as a criminal records background check. There are gray areas and as Dr. Sullivan contests, the reference checks are subject to biases. Unlike criminal background checks, references are subjective.
For the most part, no one provides you with a bad reference. The reference usually views the employment candidate in a favorable light. However, I would also venture there are some dramatic exceptions. I remember one time where when asked about the candidate's departure, the reference responded, "because nobody around here could stand him." If nothing else, the candidate either choose that reference in desperation or is a bad judge of character. But I digress.
But assuming that the reference will be partial toward the candidate, there is a fair amount of information you can learn from a reference check. In our experience, it seems the higher you go on the ladder, the more specific and the more useful the reference information. I find that C level and executive level business people are the most articulate in describing skill sets, relationships, performance assessment than references on the lower echelon. They seem better acquainted with the drill and better understanding just what the reference researcher is looking for.
I also find that references on the upper job levels are quicker to get back to you than those in the lower employment positions. When you call a senior executive, and they know that you are calling on a reference, they are more apt to take your call or get back to you quickly than someone on a more junior level. They understand the heavy competition in the job market, especially at their levels, and they will move to help out a friend or associate. This may be akin to the old saying, "if you want something done correctly, ask a busy person."
For certain clients I will personally conduct references for the more significant employment positions. I am more familiar with these people and know what to ask and how best to feel my way through their answers to discern the truth from their desire to get a buddy hired. I also interview references for creative. Having worked in advertising and show business, I understand these spaces and what is required in skill sets and disposition. In knowing what are client is looking or, I can direct questions to certain qualities--is the writer good with dialog and character? Is the artist fluent with digital media, print, whatever?
On the other hand, the most painful experience is dealing with the semi-articulate, usually junior staff, who may yield very little useful information. And then there are the academics candidates use as references. With younger job recruits, sometimes they will list their professors with whom they had taken classes or had been their mentors. Frankly, listening to some of the professors can be a painful experience. With academics, not only is the reference often less than hoped for, but too often the professor can take forever to spit out what most can express rather quickly. No wonder I used to cut a good number of my college classes.
As I sometimes conduct reference checks for clients when the candidate is at a very senior level and with specific skill, I have gleaned in behalf of the employer some very useful information. Input detailing skill sets and the actual responsibilities of the candidate have come to light. How the candidate builds and maintains relationships can be revealing, especially for sales and marketing people. Employers, after all, are calculating whether a prospective employee can bring enough business in from the get-go to assist in earning his salary.
Dr. Sullivan makes excellent points about the vagaries of reference checks. There are some with which I agree, and some that overlooks the positive aspects. The thing is with reference checks is to get everything in writing. If the reference explains up front that his company prohibits him from giving references, don't waste your time. Just ask your candidate for another reference.
Do not disregard negative information. Realize that most references are trying to be honest while also trying to be polite. Simply put, they will not bad mouth anyone outright, but will drop subtle or not so subtle hints about the candidate's behavior or performance. Don't disregard these little suggestions. And more to the point, don't be afraid to follow up with additional questions, pressing the reference somewhat for better clarification.
Very reference checking for the different job. The reference form may be generic, but you can modify that form to best address different job categories. Determine the qualities that you are seeking in a candidate. Some employers wish to know management style or whether the candidate freaks out under pressure or stress. How best to deal with the candidate? For the most part, it is not particularly relevant in the virtual world or at higher recruiting levels if a candidate punches the proverbial clock on time. You want to know if he will meet his deadlines and respond to clients in a timely fashion. Will your candidate be willing to work long hours to be sure the job is done?
Yes, there are definitely situations where with reference checks that you don't receive the value that was initially perceived. Some are even a waste of time. But in many cases, the detailed reference verification is one of the key background checks that will provide inside into a candidate's behavior, skill sets, management style, and approach to the job. This is added value as it is not only the candidate's self-assessment or as he presents his value to the recruiter. This evaluation is perceived by a third party. Perhaps the third party favors your candidate, but nevertheless, most references are pretty objective. Most realize if they are perceived as a cheerleader then the reference does their associate little if any good.
So be clear about what you are looking for from a reference. And if the reference knew the candidate way back when, then chances are everything has changed. Your candidate has probably overcome his initial hurdles, has matured and gotten better at the job. This is the kind of reference that may not be worth your while.
Remember, too, sometimes the references are surprising. They can shed new light on the candidate or highlight personality traits or varied skill sets you, the employer or recruiter were not aware of. Things that can be put to use. Things than can make this candidate a better recruit. And that is what you are seeking, after all.