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Don’t be a Fool to a Fake Referee! (Plus 4 more Steps Towards a Robust Reference Check)

Screening candidates is often overlooked by hiring managers when the time to fill the position, or a lack of suitable candidates, takes priority over finding the perfect fit for the business. It is something that needs to be taken seriously however, as hiring an employee without properly vetting their skills or experience can lead to terrible outcomes for the business. More often than not, managers will conduct as little as one reference check on an individual. This usually takes the form of a brief “chat” with a past employer and focuses on confirming a pre-existing bias, rather than seeking a greater truth about the person’s skills or expertise. Here are five tips to help you improve your reference checking process, so that you can be more effective at hiring staff and reducing turnover.

1. Plan your questions. What are the key competencies or skills required for this position? Is it a focus on accuracy and attention to detail, or the ability to manage and mentor a small team? Note down the key areas that you need to investigate and then devise a set of questions from there. For example, “Did he/she ever need to process a large amount of data in Microsoft Excel and if so, what was the data?”

2. Cross reference your questions with what you asked the candidate during their interview. For example, if you asked the candidate how they had met their sales or performance targets in the past, ask their previous employer the same question and ask for quantifiable measures. For example, “Did they exceed sales targets and if so, by how much?” This will give you greater clarity about the individual and will “weed out” anyone that has not been honest with you.

3. Be careful of bias. With time or resource pressures, it may be easy to fall into “bias mode”, that is, asking questions that confirm or tell you what you want to hear, as well as ignoring any red flags. Stop yourself if you begin to put words in their mouth, such as “what you’re saying is that he/she is a team player, right?” If the employer mentions anything adverse, for example a personality clash or repeated missed deadlines, ensure you investigate further until you have a clear understanding of the matter/issue. More often than not, the ‘red flags’ will be repeated throughout their career.

4. Use the reference check as a management tool. Reference checks can also be used to provide insight on how to best manage the individual and to find out what management style works best for them. Do they prefer more independence or constant direction? How do they handle negative feedback? Or how do they work with difficult personalities? This is particularly useful if they are going to be working with a challenging colleague and can therefore be used for both selection and management.

5. Ensure the referee is credible. Only speak with managers or supervisors and do your due diligence to ensure that the reference is credible. Character references are not suitable and are extremely subjective. Even a colleague that has worked alongside the individual for a number of years is unable to see the full picture. Call the referee on their business landline if you are unsure or find them on LinkedIn. Don’t be a fool to a “fake referee”.

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