The poor cousin of the recruitment process is the obligatory reference check. Too often it is nothing more than a perfunctory procedure to conclude an exhausting number of interviews.
Most reference checks are the outcome of a telephone conversation, as most recruiters will attach little weight to any written references. Many companies have policies prohibiting managers from providing written references, in light of potential litigation. Often the risks of providing references are overstated, resulting in limited information being provided, due to concerns about negligent referral or defamation. Privacy laws govern the contacting of referees and keeping of information. Though recruiters adopt a code of professional practice, the risk of hiring managers using their informal network to get anecdotal half-truths remains problematic.
A reference check is not a fishing expedition or idle gossip, but a structured and important part of the hiring process. Research has indicated that reference checks have about half the validity of structured interviews.
The declining value of reference checking is because it is badly done, rather than being of little value. The big challenge for recruiters is to develop a new and better way of conducting reference checks with a higher validity so that they can be more useful.
A Strategic Approach to Reference Checking
There are three very deliberate and strategic actions that recruiters can adopt to achieve significantly better results from reference checking. Having successfully implemented this approach in a number of companies, have also resulted in better retention of top talent.
(a) 360 Reference Checking
Extrapolating the benefits from 360 feedback systems, recruiters need to adopt a wider and more comprehensive approach by including:
EN Executives (one over one); Direct Manager; Peers; Direct reports; Clients and customers.
-It It is not sufficient to conduct only a minimum of two reference checks, which seems to be the general practice in many companies.
(b) Competence based Reference Checking
Often companies neglect the opportunity to assess competencies throughout the recruitment process. An ideal process would include screening, interviews, testing and reference checking – often the first and last are omitted or not performed as well.
Even during psychometric assessment there is often insufficient linkage to the specific position description and identified role competencies.
By clearly defining key competencies and developing structured reference checking techniques, a continuum of competence can be identified and validated throughout the
(c) Integrated Reference Checking
By consolidating the richer feedback of a wider group, information can be interpreted and validated. It is important to keep in mind that some referees may have worked with the candidate at different companies, which may add a different dimension in terms of performance results. Behavioural comments should however be consistent.
Requests for reference checking to be partly handled by an external recruiter and partly by the HR Manager or hiring manager should be strongly resisted. It is imperative that one person conducts all reference checks, otherwise the validity of the reference check will be variable.
In summary, companies can significantly influence the factors that determine the validity of reference checks. Recruiters can make a real contribution by improving the existing referencing checking process. There is no need for a non-rational fear that the reference checking process will capsize the recruitment just before landing the appointment.
Not only should reference checking assist to identify the competent but corrupt individual, but it actually reinforces the suitability and employability of good candidates, by providing a more complete process.
Reference checking is an important step in the recruitment process and needs to be elevated to equal status to other stages. The consequence of this for candidates will be to take much more time in discussing their career objectives and recruitment activities with their referees.
A well-prepared referee who has some understanding of the role that the candidate is being considered for will provide more useful and pertinent information during a more strategic reference check, making reference checking a more valuable recruitment activity.