Top 10 hiring mistakes - #7 - poor reference checks - or lack thereof

In the countdown of the Top 10 Hiring Mistakes, we land at number 7 - Poor Reference Checks...or lack thereof. Because, what I find interesting in speaking with businesses about their hiring process is this: Reference checks are often an afterthought and poorly done - if done at all.

Good decisions are made when all information is available. A quality decision is when all this information is in such a way as to make that final decision a mere formality. In other words, what effort is put in the accumulation of the information means the simplicity of the decision in the end.

Therefore, why do businesses neglect a solid form of information, or use it in such a way that leaves itself open for misinformation and poor-quality returns?

Reference checks are a great way (but of course not the only way) to achieve a solid background on a potential employee. Provided they are done right, they will provide details from someone who would know the qualities and skills of the candidate best - an ex-employer. However, whilst they are great information sources, the quality of this information is determined by three factors that must be - though not always - considered:

The questions asked
The confirmation of the person giving the reference
Listening to the referee

Where a lot of businesses fall over is asking questions that don't give clear indications or that offer no relevance to the role at hand. Generic questions that are closed or can be broadly answered will fail to provide this indication. Questions around "Are they a good employee", "Did they do a good job", "Were they on time for work" and pointless and won't go deeply into the character of the candidate...yet these are the most common questions asked of a referee. They will not provide the deep detail needed, nor provide an overall impression of how the candidate will fit in a working environment and will only result in bland generalizations as answers. As a tip, a great question is one that will put the referee on the spot, such as "Would you hire this person again? Why / Why not?

The number of reference checks that do not check the reference's validity is staggeringly high. How do you know you are not talking to the candidate's best friend or relative? If you have only a name and number to go by, and you haven't verified the reference was in a direct supervisory role to the candidate and you don't use the likes of Linked In or the main switch to do the verification, then you cannot be certain the reference you receive is going to be a quality one.

If businesses have got acknowledgement of who they are speaking to, and have some good questions to ask, why then do they not listen? Too many times business get answers but they don't listen. As the majority of reference checks are conducted over the phone, you are unable to see physical signs of disgust, apprehension or other tell-tale signs that the words spoken don't match the body saying them. Listening for pauses, breath exhalation, sighing, stumbling and other non-verbal sounds that could indicate issues with the candidate's reference can sometimes provide more information than what is actually said. Problem is, not a lot of people doing reference checks listen.

Then there is the case of those who do not do reference checks in the first place...and if you are making a decision without input from a referee, you are not making a qualified one as this really is a step backwards in any hiring process. Forgetting or refusing to conduct on is a major no-no in any hiring situation and the only guarantee you will gain from it is that the final decision will be a poor one. Sure, you may get lucky with the candidate, but who is really willing to take that risk - especially when it is your business's growth, reputation and branding on the line.


Scott Brown

Principal at Scott Brown Recruitment

Hi, I'm Scott. I am a recruitment expert and small business hiring consultant with over 14 years industry experience. I started my business in 2009 as a pure recruiter, but have morphed it into a consultancy on internal hiring. I love small business and I love what I do, as it really sits well with my passion for the people side of any business. On top of that I am a blogger / writer and speaker on hiring within small businesses.

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Phil Khor

Phil Khor , Founder at SavvySME

Great article Scott, reference checking is one of the most critical step in my books, it really doesn't take long at all. In fact, I like calling up the referee myself and look for all those non-verbal signs. It tells me a whole lot more than what is actually said. I think it's a shame most hiring managers are busily writing down the answers rather than listen. From experience, it's also important for hiring managers to "dig deeper" if there's any doubt at all, rather than just run through a standard list of questions for the sake of completing the exercise. Thanks for sharing Scott.