Have you heard the story of the PERFECT candidate who was hired because of their supposedly great performance in past roles, only for them to turn out to be non-performers once hired?

The hiring manager then wonders: “What could have gone wrong in our assessment process? Or did we not onboard the person well?”

How can we really find out about a candidate’s past performance and behaviours? Even the best skill test and behaviour-based interview can’t tell you everything! In conversation with our clients we realize that while reference and background checks are deemed important, many managers don’t actually believe that they can work.

We suggest you ditch your old-school reference approach and commit to getting real information through thoughtful background and reference checks, which you fully integrate into the overall screening and assessment process.

Three reasons why your approach to reference checks is not working:

1) You’re using the SAME template/questions for EVERY role you hire for. By doing this, you are assuming that the criteria for assessing all roles is the same. Every assessment stage should be tailored to the role you’re hiring for; including the background checks.

For example, you can’t ask about the strengths of an Accounts Assistant the same way you’ll ask for those of an Operations Manager. Make the questions specific to what you want to hear to ensure you get tangible information about past performance.

Generic questions such as “What where their strengths in their last role?” will not get you far. Instead ask something like: “How did their strengths improve the departments performance? What were the results achieved?”

2) You’re calling the WRONG people. References listed on the candidate’s CV are noRH smallt necessarily going to give you the information you want. Cases of ingenuity during this stage are not uncommon. A candidate may list down their colleagues or friends as references. If you don’t conduct due diligence, you’ll likely fall for this. You’ll talk to someone who sanitises their weaknesses in past roles and think the person did no wrong. We recommend that you speak to people the candidate truly reported to, or other individuals who will give you a genuine, honest and critical assessment.

3) You aren’t actually doing it. You have let good charms displayed by a candidate during the selection process trick you into thinking you don’t have to do reference checks. “This person is very authentic.”

How we leverage reference checks so our clients make informed hiring decisions at edge

  • We corroborate information gathered from the different referees to gain a final  assessment. Did the same strengths and weaknesses come up consistently? Can you see the professional growth over the years? Is there one negative outlier, that would make you probe further?
  • We customise the process for every role!
  • We make use of the relationships you have and conduct informal checks. Find intermediaries who can connect you to a manager in their past company, even if it’s not their supervisor. Make use of the “I know a guy, who knows a guy who knows a guy” method. Go a step further and use LinkedIn to identify people to speak to. Only in an informal background check may you find out that John steals people’s food from the fridge, soo; not a great fit for your organization culture. Bye bye, John! On to the next one! Especially when digging about a candidate’s CURRENT job performance, you have to tread carefully, so speak to people who won’t compromise their job security by telling on them.
  • We are methodical in our approach: Ensure to speak to at least 1-2 people about their last three jobs each. Include direct supervisors, as they are a great bet at providing you with the information you require. Also include other key informants, such as managers of other departments, peers or HR managers in your list of people to interview.
  • We pay attention to red flags: At the end of the day, you want the person you hire to be a person that upholds your organization’s values, integrity and is a good culture fit.

Red flags you shouldn’t ignore during the process

  • Referees giving brief answers, taking their sweet time to return the forms, or not returning them at all. Once we sent forms to three former direct managers, but only one returned the form (and she put LITTLE effort in answering our questions and had written N/A to two KEY questions). That should tell you that their former supervisors don’t have a lot of positive things to say about them, if at all.
  • A candidate not providing you recent references. Imagine a scenario where you’re considering someone for a managerial position, and they have a total of 15 years experience. You expect them to provide contacts from their recent five years, but instead they give you those of junior jobs. While a candidate may be worried about their current employer being aware of their job search, after conversation with the candidate, they should provide recent references even if it’s peer managers, key clients, HR department etc. If you don’t see willingness to dialogue: red flag!
  • Reference forms that look fake. Yup! You read that right. How do we know, you ask? Well, we put two and two together when we receive forms where the writing style, formatting and language is EXACTLY the same. Or   So yes; collusion between a candidate and their referees does happen. Phone calls to verify content are also crucial.
  • And the last one: Candidate seems reluctant for you to speak to a former manager.  Certain behaviours just make you wonder: “My supervisor moved abroad, and I can’t reach them.” or “I don’t think you should speak to this person, they won’t be able to say much about me.”  Here you can choose: Try to reach the referee yourself (through LinkedIn or professional networks) or simply disqualifying the candidate based on lack of references.

As you can see, we’re really passionate about making this part of recruitment work!

We’d love to hear some of the crazy experiences you have encountered while conducting reference or background checks!

And don’t hesitate to get in touch with us to discuss how you can make your process more effective and ensure you make the right hires!