When a job seeker offers a prospective employer access to a reference, there's a good chance that person will give the hiring manager an earful of helpful information. Yet Cynthia Hedricks, chief analytics officer of SkillSurvey, a reference checking technology firm, says not many studies have been done on the impact this feedback has on hiring decisions or how it might predict a candidate's job performance.
So SkillSurvey took a deep dive into its extensive data set and found there are trends in the areas where their references thought applicants could improve as well as which were the most common strengths.
SkillSurvey’s analysis identified commitment, dependability, team orientation, attention to detail, and attitude among the top 10 most frequently occurring traits of job candidates across 16 industry-specific positions. Commitment, for example, was present across the board from candidates vying for retail cashier positions to RNs and HR directors to skilled trade workers.
The top five areas references cited job candidates needed to improve were confidence, communication, knowledge, experience, and time management. The references reported lack of confidence in nearly every industry position with the exception of skilled worker, HR director, and hiring manager. Retail workers from cashiers to managers were most commonly critiqued for knowledge and time management skills.
It's interesting to note that even though some of the positions listed were for entry level and recent graduates, the strengths don't jive with another survey's findings about job seeker's skills. Among the skills new graduates were found to need work on according to a PayScale study were attention to detail and teamwork, something SkillSurvey's references reported as one of the most commonly found positive traits. Communication skills, on the other hand, were cited as needing improvement in both reports.
To find the results, SkillSurvey’s analytics team selected a random sample of 3,200 candidates' references from confidential surveys of 16 different jobs. The team then randomly selected four references per candidate, including two from managers and two from coworkers. The complete data set was comprised of 12,800 references.
The analysts noted that the confidential nature of the online reference format may have played into the fact that as many as 106 areas for improvement were identified. They cite older studies that have shown that people are reluctant to offer negative feedback and often avoid it.
Although skills such as confidence and knowledge can be broadly defined—i.e., knowledge learned from a textbook is different than what you experience on the job—Hedricks says that SkillSurvey used a non-evaluative approach known as in vivo (sometimes called literal) coding.
The approach was chosen specifically because the company claims that no other large-scale published studies on the nature or content of qualitative data provided by a candidate’s job references currently exist.
"This method of coding or categorizing the comments was based solely upon the words or short phrases provided by the references," she explains. "We used these words/short phrases to name the categories when we were coding the words/short phrases," says Hedricks.
Hedricks says that in the case of the use of the word knowledge, the overwhelming majority of comments were made in the context of job-specific knowledge, so the analytics team used this term to name the category. For example, she says, if the candidate was applying for an engineering position, a reference might have mentioned "knowledge of auto-CAD systems." For a sales candidate, it could be "knowledge of the sales cycle." For customer service applicants, it might be "knowledge of products or services," and so forth, across the 16 different job roles that the analytics team investigated.
The differentiation came if the reference mentioned further education or training, which received that code and was not considered in the job-specific knowledge category, Hedricks says. In other words, she says, "For engineering candidates, this could have been '[candidate] should take the PE exam,' or for a nursing candidate, 'should get [a] BS in nursing.'" Hedricks observes that many references across job types wrote "[candidate] should go back to school and get [his/her] degree."
"The research doesn’t necessarily suggest that people lack these skills, but it does show the most common areas where job references observe that candidates could stand to improve," says Hedricks. "We think this means that employers would be well served to focus their on boarding, training, and development efforts on key areas where we know that many candidates can improve, like helping them to gain more confidence and sharpen their communication skills.
Recent findings from Gallup revealed that people who use their strengths every day are six times more likely to be engaged on the job, which has a positive effect on performance and the company’s bottom line.
Unfortunately, Gallup’s data revealed that only 3% of respondents said they set goals for themselves based on their strengths or that their supervisor and organization supported and encouraged building on those strengths. The majority (97%) of workers polled is a huge untapped pool of productivity.
"Several of these characteristics are also considered soft skills, and these are areas that can most often get in the way of an employee’s success," notes Hedricks, which, like talents, are very difficult to screen for. She believes it is very hard, overall, to train on soft skills or talents. "This is why getting this type of specific feedback from references can be valuable to employers," she says.
SkillSurvey expects to take a more detailed look at how these traits differ specifically between men and women in the future, as well as look into possible differences between references who were former managers vs. references who were former coworkers.