Who wouldn’t want a heads-up on how a job candidate might perform before hiring them? That’s what the entire interview process is for, right? Well, yes, but there’s a final step that many employers either treat as a mere formality or skip over entirely: reference-checking.
Employers often believe they can glean the most important information about job candidates from the candidates themselves. Yet information supplied by the candidate can be biased–either due to self-deception, the inability to accurately evaluate oneself, or even intentionally stretching the truth. There’s a real risk that biases in candidates’ self-reporting can make resumes, interviews, and even personality tests less useful than many recruiters and hiring managers might hope.
On the flip-side, references tend to be more valuable than hiring experts typically believe–as long as they take reference-checking seriously. Here’s how.
1. Treat It As A Test
Reference-checking is only one of the final tests job candidates face in the interview process, but it’s still an important one. You’re asking a candidate to provide contact information from people they’ve worked with in the past, both managers and coworkers: Can they share this intel efficiently and accurately? How long does it take them to do so? Have they reached out to their references ahead of time to make sure they have their current contact information, and if they’re willing to serve as a reference?
Here at SkillSurvey, a reference-checking platform, we’ve found that behavioral ratings, and the proportion of references who respond to the candidate’s request, are key predictors of their success on the job. What’s more, these factors are statistically linked to people leaving or being fired within the first year. So don’t just focus on what feedback the references are providing. Also, keep an eye on who is providing that info to you and whether most references respond.
2. Ask References For Their Constructive Criticism (And Take It Seriously)
It’s a myth that job candidates only solicit references from people who’ll say nice things about them. Of course, they frequently do–but after praising a candidate, references are typically happy to share constructive feedback when prompted to, and it actually tends to be fairly accurate.
In fact, research suggests that information gathered from references is statistically predictive of a candidate’s future work behavior. This feedback has been linked to productivity, teamwork, hiring manager satisfaction, and turnover, to name just a few important factors. One study of current employees even found that others’ perceptions of an individual’s personality at work can be more accurate than those same individuals’ self-perception.
Reference providers will usually be more candid when they’re ensured that their feedback will remain confidential. We’ve actually seen that 83% of all reference providers offer open-ended comments on a candidate’s areas for improvement when they’re questioned about that. Some of the top issues they tend to cite include stress-coping skills, prioritization, and attention to detail–not exactly minor issues.
3. Compare What References Tell You With Social-Media Data
Platforms like LinkedIn, GitHub and Upwork permit candidates to flesh out their resumes with comments or rankings from others, including recommendations and endorsements of their skills by colleagues and partners. Since this information is so handy, recruiters and hiring managers may feel tempted to use it as a rough proxy for checking a candidate’s references. That’s a mistake. If you’re looking for the candid story about a candidate and whether they’ll be a good fit for the role, you’ll have to get information from references that’s more specific to what it takes to succeed in your organization.
While the information a candidate puts out there on social media can supplement a reference check, keep in mind that it’s mostly curated by the candidate, who can exclude anything unfavorable. In fact, if there’s a glaring disparity between what a candidate’s profile endorsers seem to say and anything else you’ve learned over the course of the hiring process, that inconsistency can lead to some valuable, probing questions during the interview.
The myth that reference-checking is just a trivial formality needs to be dispelled. It can be the best tool for uncovering other myths–the ones that a job candidate might be throwing your way.
Cynthia A. Hedricks, PhD, is the Chief Analytics Officer at SkillSurvey, Inc., a reference checking technology firm that harnesses the power of references to help organizations more effectively recruit, hire, and retain talent