Reference Checks are More Important Now than Ever Before

While reference checks have always been an important part of the hiring process, recent employment trends have made them even more important.

Recent trend – covering gaps in employment with inaccurate information
The recession has kept large numbers of people out of work for extended periods of time. In fact, 4.3 percent of the labor force has been out of work for more than six months-a level much higher than after any other recession since 1948.

Some companies exclude any and all unemployed candidates from consideration. Candidates know companies may view their lack of employment negatively and some cover gaps with inaccurate experience. While I am not a proponent of universally ruling out unemployed candidates (in fact, I recently blogged about how excluding unemployed candidates is a bad recruitment strategy), dishonest candidates must be ruled out. What to look out for:

  • Self-employed candidates: You need to assess if any meaningful level of work was actually performed. I respect candidates with a good work ethic who did whatever they could to earn income during the recession, but be careful to not be fooled by candidates who embellish too much.
  • Working for family or friends: Same concern as with self-employed candidates. I once did a reference check to a family member who told me the candidate didn’t really work there. Rather than cover for the candidate, the family member was concerned about a bad reflection on her business so she told me the straight story. I never would have known had I not performed the reference check.

Recent trend – fabricating in-demand skill sets
In spite of high unemployment, certain skill sets remain in high demand. While it is acceptable for candidates to highlight their most desirable skills, there is an increased number of candidates who cross the line and simply make up skills and work experience that they don’t have. If you hire these deceptive job seekers, you run the risk of finding out the hard way that their experience was not what you thought it to be.

Recent trend – Media inspired lies
Sensational stories in the media about employees who lied their way to money and power while duping employers and co-workers along the way cause some candidates to think telling lies about their background is acceptable conduct.

Best practice for reference checks

Use the back door

Standard reference checks are of limited use. By standard I mean you call the references that the candidate provides. Expect these hand-picked people to say only good things about the candidate. You need to use your network and speak with someone at the organization where the candidate worked who will give you candid information (or, alternatively, a customer the candidate serviced). Many people in recruiting refer to this as a “back door reference.”

The goal here is not necessarily to “dig up dirt” on the candidate but rather to get a more complete and unbiased picture of the candidate in order to make the most informed decision possible. Be discrete and take care not to create any problems for a candidate who is conducting a confidential search.

The challenge is finding a person who will be honest and open with you. It is easy if you know someone at the organization where the candidate worked; if you don’t know anyone, work at it. Try social networking sites (i.e. Linked-in), send an email around your office or to your friends or alumni group, simply ask “do you know anyone who works at XYZ Company?” If your candidate worked locally it is highly likely that you will get a hit if you reach out to your contacts. Back door references are well worth the extra effort since they can prevent bad hires or provide the information that prompts you to make the right hire.

Good advice
For excellent guidance on how to conduct reference checks, read the book “Who” by Geoff Smart and Randy Street. Smart and Street recommend a total of seven reference interviews for key hires: three past bosses, two peers or customers, and two subordinates. To save yourself time and increase the likelihood you reach you reach the reference, they recommend you ask the candidate to contact the reference to set-up the interview. Smart and Street also recommend five simple questions to ask on reference calls:

  1. In what context did you work with the person?
  2. What were the person’s biggest strengths?
  3. What were the person’s biggest areas for improvement back then?
  4. How would you rate his/her overall performance in that job on a 1-10 scale? What about his or her performance causes you to give that rating?
  5. The person mentioned that he/she struggled with __________ in that job. Can you tell me more about that?

Since many people don’t want to provide negative information on reference calls you will need to pay attention to both what people say as well as how they say it and press for details. A positive reference will be unmistakable; it will be full of unqualified compliments.

Following the above guidelines will help ensure that you’re getting what you want in a candidate and making informed hiring decisions. While I am sympathetic to the struggles of job seekers in these difficult economic times, desperation is breeding dishonesty and hiring managers must remain diligent about candidate screening and reference checks.

Aaron Green is founder and president of Boston-based Professional Staffing Group and PSG Global Solutions. He is also the vice chairman of the American Staffing Association. He can be reached at or (617) 250-1000.

This article was originally posted on the On Staffing HR Column on

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