The Major Drawback To Checking References

Let’s suppose you’re hiring for a key mid-level management position. You’ve gone through an extensive search and interview process and you are ready to extend an offer to one of the candidates. Before extending the offer, three references are checked. One reference gives a glowing recommendation, the second gives a positive, but more subdued thumbs up and the third provides a somewhat useless report simply confirming hire and termination dates along with position held.

Based on these recommendations, what kind of opinion should you form? The answer is; it’s hard to say. But why?

We all know that checking references can provide a mixed bag of results. This can often lead to confusion about the potential of the employee. Some hiring experts point to the fact that most employers are afraid to say anything negative about a former employee out of fear of litigation. This is certainly an issue that needs to be considered in evaluating reference checks. However, we think there is a bigger issue to address when evaluating reference results.

Every organization takes on a culture in terms of performance and accountability. A few have a high performance, high accountability culture. Some have a low performance, low accountability culure. And the rest fall somewhere in between. Given this fact, how can you effectively evaluate a candidate’s past performance without knowing what kind of culture they operated within?

Let’s go back and look at the first reference you called. They gave a glowing recommendation of the candidate. But we have to ask ourselves a very significant question. How does our culture compare with the culture of that organization? If ours is a high performance, high accountability culture, but they operate within a low performance, low accountability culture the candidate’s glowing recommendation is based on “jumping over a lower bar” than he/she will have to jump over in our culture. Unfortunately this leaves us wondering in terms of whether that candidate can get over our “bar”.

To compound matters further, it is not acceptable to ask questions of the person providing the reference about his/her company’s culture. Even asking questions such as “When Mary was faced with high expectations, how well did she meet those expectations?” are clearly not going to yield reliable answers since the frame of reference is different than your frame of reference. In other words, what the other person considers to be high expectations is very likely going to be different than your organization’s definition of high expectations.

There are numerous examples of employees who received strong recommendations from former employers only to fail with their new employer. There can be a multitude of reasons for failure, but the point here is that reference checking will only rarely provide good information. Unless the companies providing references are somewhat similar to yours as far as accountability and performance are concerned don’t expect to have a strong base of information to work with.

Given this potential problem, how should you deal with it? First of all, during the interviewing process make sure that the candidate is asked to respond to questions that relate to job-oriented behavior. For example, suppose you are hiring for a managerial position and the candidate has a management background. You might ask the candidate to “briefly explain how you establish accountability among those who report to you”. This will provide some insight into how well the candidate understands the notion of accountability, but perhaps more importantly will reveal something about the culture(s) he/she has operated in previously. If the candidate stumbles with the response and doesn’t have a good handle on this concept, it could mean that he/she has come from environments where accountability and high performance were foreign terms. Or it could mean that the candidate doesn’t understand the important concept of accountability. Either way, a red flag is being waved.

Or try this, “in your past positions, did you find it easy to meet the expectations established for you or did you feel you had to stretch to meet them?” Understand that the response “I found them easy to meet” could mean:
1) the candidate is bright and meets expectations as a result,
2) the expectations haven’t been all that high and it wasn’t difficult to meet them.
And a response of “I had to stretch to meet them” could mean:
1) the candidate is not all that bright and it isn’t easy for him/her to meet expectations or
2) the expectations have been very demanding and it caused them to stretch to meet them.
Knowing that, now try something like this; “you indicated it was (easy/difficult) for you to meet expectations in the past. Can you explain that a little more for me?” By probing, the candidate could reveal some tidbit that you will find useful in evaluating what kind of environment he/she is accustomed to operating in. These are only examples and you should take the time to come up with your own line of questioning to get at this very important issue.

In terms of references, asking questions such as “when (candidate name) was faced with meeting demanding expectations, how well did he/she meet them?” or “of all of your employees past or present, how would you compare (candidate name) with them in terms of overall job performance? Would you say he/she would fall in the top third, middle third or bottom third?” This question often goes unanswered for a variety of reasons. But it is an excellent one since it gives a relative ranking even if the culture is somewhat weak as far as accountability and performance are concerned. Obviously if the respondent says anything other than “top third” another red flag is potentially waived. These are only examples and you should take the time to develop standardized questions for reference checking and interviewing.

If properly constructed and carried out, references can add some value to the hiring process. But evaluate the responses carefully. There are too many unknowns in the hiring process as it is. References are only as good as the questions asked, the person responding and the quality of the organization(s) represented by the respondents. Sometimes an outstanding candidate is given a poor reference when, in fact, they are an excellent choice for the job. This can be due to some sort of bias on the part of the respondent or an environment where the candidate couldn’t show what he/she was capable of. Many times an organization impedes the ability of an employee to perform and the employee is perceived as the problem because they are trying to perform at levels higher than the culture will allow.

In short, be very cautious in carrying out and evaluating reference checks. Bear in mind that perspective and frame of reference are important. We suggest that you not weight references too heavily in the final decision. Take them into account and if there is some consistency in responses among the various former employers, you can feel somewhat more comfortable in your assessment of the results.