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Out With That Reference Check

Another process that invites debate about its utility is the reference check. Article headlines are screaming: Reference checks are a waste of time! You also find hundreds that support it, so what should we do?

As I am designing a new recruitment process for a mid-size company reference check came up. So we had a debate about it and we agreed that I could decide about its future. So I dived in and did my research. I studied its pros and cons and my conclusion is that it is a waste of time just like probation periods. 1% of the workforce fails the probation period. The amount of hassle we put everyone through to catch that 1% doesn't justify the resources we put into the process and the same applies to reference checks.

The purpose of a reference check is to validate employment and to get more information about the candidate's ability and behaviour. How else could we do this and should we do this for every role? Do we really need to validate how long a person worked in a company? How about the ability to do the job? Wasn't the probation period designed to do that?

All these back-to-back processes, yet, hiring stats are not so great when we look at quality, turnover, skill match, and engagement.

I am also very aware of the fact that one can be a fantastic professional but have a beef with the manager or HR and there goes one's reference. So how can we confirm employment and previous performance?

By amazing interviews! Companies have 3-6 rounds of interviews and still reach out to ask for a 7th opinion. If you ask me this is bonkers and shows a lack of trust in their ability to interview well and their judgment. Also, because they are looking for the wrong thing. They are looking for answers that form their opinion about the candidate. We don't care about Emma's opinion about Szilvia, that's not what skilled interviewers do. They look for facts and the number of green and red flags as the summary of those facts. And they look for patterns of behaviours to establish those flags. So let's have a look at what is it that we are looking for.

Have two to three rounds of interviews (depending on the level) but have them structured.

  • 1st interview with HR who interviews for personality, ambition, motivation, and aspiration, and runs psychometric assessment. They also check for benefits and salary scale matches.

  • 2nd interview is the most critical and if you get this right you don't need a reference check at all. This must be done by a highly skilled interviewer because here you must establish the person's patterns of behaviour. You go through the last five jobs of the person and ask the same question. This is only for managers and above.

  • Q1: How did you find that job? You want to see if they were recommended by anyone or by their previous managers/leaders. This could be a great sign. Just make sure it is not the same person as that is a red flag.

  • Q2: What was your greatest achievement in this role? Here you need specifics and data and how they did it. If you get fluff like I built a great team or my team achieved... that could be a red flag.

  • Q3: What was your lowest point in this role? Here you check for self-awareness (get deep into this one with these questions), team dynamics, and the health of the workplace, and maybe you even get to find out the real reason the person has left the job. If the person starts complaining about other people pay attention to it.

  • Q4: Throughout the changes in your career, what did you learn about your strengths and skills? What type of jobs are the most suitable for you? Here you look at whether the person likes to build things up or exist in an established structure. Does the person like to change the status quo or just maintain it? Does the person like working alone or on teams? Is the person hands-on or passive etc. and you see how that matches the job you are looking for.

  • Q5: Why did you leave your previous job? Don't get caught up on a single answer for any of the questions, especially with this one. Remember, you are looking for a pattern of behaviour. If the person left one job out of the five due to a dysfunctional relationship with the manager that can happen. It's ok. But if it was the case 4 out of 5 times that's a red flag. If you do this for five jobs you will establish a pattern in behaviours which you can probe further if needed. A well-established pattern worth thousands more than a reference check from a person whom I am likely to have a good relationship with. During these questions you can also cross-check for the length of service but once again, do I really care about how long the person worked for in a certain company? But then you would say, "Yes, but the person is lying about it and that's a red flag." No, it is not because people are forced to lie about career gaps by recruiters so they just play the system that wasn't designed for them.

  • 3rd interview with the hiring manager/leader who purely tests for technical skills & and knowledge related to the job. Here you use Bloom's Taxonomy that matches the job level. Interviewers may ask the candidate to perform the job. For managers and above: here you can ask for case studies, project presentations, financial study analyses etc. related to the job (go through almost all phases of the taxonomy).

Reference check is a process that aims to remove responsibility from the hiring manager. If you can interview well you don't need it. And as for roles below the managerial level, you really don't need a reference check. All you need is the person to demonstrate their motivation and ability to do the job. Don't waste your time. Even if they were fired for theft I am sure they have a friend in the company who will give a cracking reference and you will never know. I have seen it many times.

More Interview questions so you can throw your outdated ones in the bin.

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