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Reference Checks: Are you in favour of them and conduct them regularly or are they a thing of the pa

Checking the work references of candidates used to be second nature as part of what we do in recruitment, but in some circles it has been suggested it’s a thing of the past. We ask four experts their thoughts on reference checking, and their opinions are as varied as the answers you may receive when you call a referee.

Checking references has been a traditional cornerstone of what recruiters do, as we seek to confirm the information candidates are offering and to investigate what kind of an employee they are.

However, in the rush to secure talent during the current widespread skills shortages, some recruiters and clients are happy to skip the reference checks and move straight to a job offer.

But this is not always the wisest move and reference checks are a quick way to clarify or verify candidates you may feel unsure of.

One of our experts argues taking the time to check references is an important investment for small business, while another says it all boils down to what questions are asked.

Here are their thoughts.

ANGELA CONNOR Director at Inspire HQ

Reference checks are incredibly important and, contrary to the common opinion, “nobody ever puts down someone that will give them a bad reference”; it is surprising how many referees don’t give glowing references.

The purpose of reference checking isn’t for the referee to tell you if the candidate will be successful. I think this is where people lose sight of the value of the reference check because the referee says the candidate was great and you hire them, then they turn out not to be great. Was the referee lying? Or did you ask the wrong questions?

Reference checking is valuable when we ask the right type of questions and speak with the right person. Preparing specific and relevant questions and understanding what information you want to gather from doing the reference check is key.

The purpose is to substantiate what you have read in a resume and what you have observed and heard in an interview.

The focus should be to gain insight in to the person, their work style, what comes naturally to them and what doesn’t, where they may need support and to then piece that information together with the role you are considering them for.

I have observed individuals who has been successful in a particular industry, yet when they have changed jobs and gone to a competitor – into the exact same role in the same industry – they have failed miserably.

Conducting a detailed reference check would highlight if this person has been an excellent employee.

What should also be questioned is what support structure was in place to help that person succeed? What were the processes and systems they needed around them to achieve success? If there is a major gap in what you can offer, you need to weigh up if this person will be able to succeed in the new environment.

Speaking to the right referee is crucial. Don’t hesitate to question who the referees are and suggest to the candidate the referees you’d like to speak. If they really want the job they will track down the manager referee they have lost contact with or, if they are evasive, it could be a red flag.

SAMANTHA WEBSTER Director at Home Recruitment

The short answer is yes, we need reference checks. The long answer about their usefulness is more complex.

We read of large corporates no longer reading CVs, using LinkedIn and measuring the key attributes of applicants as the basis of their hiring process. We hear of organisations utilising video interviews instead of CVs and face-to-face meetings in this technology-based and global environment, so it is no wonder the question of references is being asked.

Having worked across different industries and company sizes in the UK and NZ for more than 25 years, the expectation is that a recruitment company service has completed reference checks. It provides clients a safeguard of confirming a prospective employee’s experience and how well they performed, or not, as the case may be.

From a recruiter’s perspective, the ability to offer a client references demonstrates that a comprehensive, diligent and professional approach is being undertaken and it should be a standard offering to demonstrate why a recruiter has selected applicants. Assisting organisations in seeing the value recruitment companies can add to the hiring process should be an industry goal.

References are given on the understanding it will be a positive reflection of a person’s employment and many a departing employee has been asked to write their own. In some countries, previous employers will now only confirm dates of employment, so the value of a written reference is questionable.

The true value is in verbal references, which can offer an invaluable insight. Non-written information is likely to be more candid, so a deeper understanding of an applicant’s performance, abilities, working relationships, strengths and areas of development can be elicited.

Verbal reference taking is also an opportunity for a recruiter to develop an understanding of how that organisation hires personnel, while demonstrating how professional they are as a recruiter.

They say “if you want it right, get it in writing”, however with references today, perhaps we need to rely instead on the oral tradition.

BLAKE THOMPSON Partner at Vendito Consulting

My answer is a very simple: yes we can and should do reference checks and will continue to do so well into the future, but not in all situations.

If you’re interviewing a candidate and you love them, but can’t get your head around the circumstances of them leaving a previous role, a quick call can provide the clarification to make an informed decision.

This is particularly relevant for smaller businesses which employ between two and 20 people. Taking that small amount of time to call a candidate’s former employer or manager can be a worthwhile investment, which can confirm or settle any nerves or questions you have and is a good opportunity to find out more about candidates and how they perform in the workplace.

I find that these days about 50 per cent of our clients ask us to conduct reference checks.

As a rule, when our clients are happy with a candidate they simply move to the offer stage, skipping reference checks because they believe them to be an unnecessary delay. This is more the case for larger organisations.

We find that when larger organisations conduct reference checks, they are done in a way where it is more of a box- ticking exercise rather than a serious quest for information about the candidate.

And the relevance of reference checks for larger businesses, which have a higher staff turnover rate and multiple layers of management, are less relevant and diluted to the point of sometimes being useless.

But I very much believe there will continue to be a situation where reference checks can and should be done because, with what we do, there will always be a need for validation or confirmation.

Listen to your gut. If you are working with a company that does not usually do reference checks, but you want to confirm or check details for a candidate you are unsure about, it is almost never a waste of time.

LEE-MARTIN SEYMOUR CEO and Co-founder at Xref

All too often, recruitment professionals admit they know they should be doing reference checking, but they don’t see value in it.

That’s because, in its traditional, manual form, it serves little purpose. It’s an archaic, slow and inconsistent process that is based on one person’s interpretation of another person’s feedback.

As it’s so time-consuming, many fast-track it or even forego it altogether. But, even when it is being done, there’s little assurance that the right person is on the other end of the phone; that they are expecting the call; or that they are prepared to provide the details that will ultimately inform a hiring decision.

In today’s race for talent, any hiring delay poses a very real threat of losing the best candidates to a competitor. At the same time, speed cannot come at the cost of a robust, reliable and consistent process.

For almost a decade, technology has made it possible to replace outdated approaches with fast and accurate alternatives.

There is now really no excuse for processes that are not only inconvenient and slow, but also present very real risks.

Beyond providing efficiency, automated reference checks offer organisations valuable insights into their candidates and how they should be managed as they enter the workplace, with added protection against reference fraud, bias, discrimination and breaches in data privacy.

As we continue to see articles lamenting the lack of due diligence an organisation has conducted on a recruit, the industry has to recognise the systemic issues presented by manual approaches that are used simply because, “that’s the way it’s always been done”.

Reference checking really is the only way to check if a candidate has ever done the job you are hiring them to do, but it has to be done well and with purpose.

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