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Professional guidance on reference checks

Emmanual Jinda

CONDUCTING reference checks about past performances from supervisors or peers is an essential step in the recruitment process.It can reveal a candidate’s behaviour that is critical in your decision-making regardless of their impressive competencies.

Reference checks should therefore provide insight into the candidate since there are serious institutional liabilities if, during hiring, an organisation fails to conduct an effective reference check. Notably challenges have been around the how of reference checking.

In this article, we seek to highlight to those responsible for this critical function to look out for some of the dos and don’ts of the process. Often, reference checks have been unsatisfactory and time consuming. It needs a defined process since doing it haphazardly can leave you stuck with a whole lot of nothing. Consider the following iterations:

Save reference checks for last

It is common practice for companies to save reference checks until they are ready to make an offer to the candidate. This practice saves time and shows respect to the candidate. Checking references before interviews and shortlisting can create false expectations.

Formulate efficient questions

It is best to ask open-ended questions and move away from the yes/no answers. Develop and streamline a set of questions related to the job on offer and the candidate’s experience/performance. Look for cues and pauses as you discuss. Document the information for decisionmaking and filing.

Advise before reference checks

This is important especially where current supervisors have been given as referees. It is not always plausible that the candidate will inform their current employer of their potential move. While the best practice is to speak to the person who directly supervised the candidate, it may not be possible though they are likely to have more solid information. This can only be done if the candidate specifically highlights that it is ok. Doing so without their permission, you run the risk of alerting their boss that they are actively looking for a new job.

Handling informal references

What is a matter of concern in our environment is the use of backdoor references where information is asked about a candidate from someone not listed as an official referee. If conducted professionally and ethically, these can give deeper insight into the potential employee. If backdoor referencing must be done, ensure they are productive and do not cause harm to the reputation or the career of either party.

Take everything said during backdoor referencing with a grain of salt. Since the person providing it knows it is off the record, they usually are tempted to allow other personal grievances or ambitions to come through. Always ask yourself whether they would put that in writing; if the answer is no, exercise some discretion. It is a right of the candidate to see that information about them.

If as a recruiter you do not want to divulge the information you got through the backdoor, do not forward the information. Let the informant know that you may use the information for decision making. Such transparency reduces malice and chances of suing each other of defamation of character.

Always remember that information is limited by the perception of the person giving it. Backdoor reference needs to be cross checked with another person. Making decisions without considering the circumstances will be a monumental error. While backdoors are an important source of confirming a candidate’s suitability, do them with consideration and stay within the bands of the law. Do not automatically reject a candidate because of one discrepancy as there are many reasons for the discrepancy and inconsistency. Evaluate these first by following through with other sources, checking out for pauses and cues.

Never write off the candidate

In reference-checking discussions, never assume people stay the same. Most people go back 10 years and just because someone had a difficulty with an issue does not mean they still behave that way today since circumstances that triggered that behaviour may never be experienced again.

Using other sources, dig deeper for situational circumstances that could have put the employee at a disadvantage. Also check on the period the candidate was with the organisations and ascertain development of some cultural misfit along the way.

Today many successful professionals will not stand being micro-managed and this can annoy medieval bosses, especially those who have not migrated their leadership mindset to the 21st Century way of leading. If the candidate had been with the employer for a long period of time, rather ask the candidate directly as well.

Validate information

Take time to validate information on curriculum vitaes and given in interviews with referees. It is therefore important to introduce yourself, highlight the purpose of your request, give a brief on the job at hand etc.

It is crucial to maintain the same approach and request similar information for all applicants being considered.

In conclusion, reference checks can be done in an efficient and structured manner and yield useful information to aid decision making in the recruitment process.

Jinda is the managing consultant of PROSERVE Consulting Group, a leading supplier of professional HR and management services. — +263 773 00 4143 or +263 24 2772778 or visit www.proservehr.com

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