Have you checked under the bonnet?

What’s the point of references ? After all, people will only give you the names of referees who will say good things about them (unless they are really stupid) and (if they are smart) will have prepped them to say what they think the recruiter will want to hear. With this in mind how much value do references really add to the recruitment process ?
If your approach to referencing is to just go through the motions because you have to take references, then there is very little point to doing it. However, I have learnt that when done properly references are absolutely invaluable, even essential, to assessing a candidates suitability for a position. In fact, I would even go so far as to say they are the most important part of a recruitment process.
Here is why references are vital……
Basically, if you don’t get some confirmation of what you are being told by a candidate, then you are making the assumption they are telling the truth. I don’t think that the world is full of fibbers but put your hand up if you have never been told a lie by a candidate. Yes, a good recruiter will normally be able to snuff out any major discrepancies by asking the right questions at interview. You don’t have to be Hercule Poirot to tell that someone did not work in the role they are claiming they did, or that their dates of employment don’t add up, or that the role was not actually a contract but they got fired. However, assumptions are the enemy of successful recruitment and even the best interviewers don’t always get it right so it really pays to check.
Confirming what you have been told, is only part of their value. References should also be seen as a positive tool, not just to catch out liars, but  to provide insight into things like how that individual should be managed, any areas of development, their future potential etc. Not only will this feedback help you make the right hiring decision, it will also help you get the best out of that person when they are in your business.
So, how do you approach referencing to get the most out of it ?
Firstly, ask for the references that you want. Don’t necessarily just accept the names that a candidate gives you. Furthermore, don’t assume that these people are who they say they are. Make sure that the person you have been given as their line manager or a client actually is their line manager or client and not just their colleague or friend (Overly suspicious ? It happens !).  If a candidate cannot give you the details of their previous line managers, or anyone else you ask for,  then there is something wrong. Sure, this person may have moved on, changed mobile number, or the company as a policy do not give references. But with a bit of digging around on social media sites and some gentle persuasion these things can normally be overcome.
In my experience, if a candidate cannot provide the names I am asking for, and they are reasonable, then I am immediately suspicious. Why wouldn’t you be?
Secondly, referencing should be much more than a quick 5 minute telephone call going through a set list of questions on the standard company reference check form. Neither should it be passed to the receptionist to do. A reference call should be, as much as possible, a conversation led by the recruiter to get the information they need. In this way you are far more likely to get genuine and useful insight, not just the rehearsed answers to a bunch of leading question.
Thirdly, a reference should also include some wider background checks to uncover any potentially additional information which may help make a final decision about a candidates suitability. This is not to say that you hire a private detective to go through the candidate’s bin. But there is nothing wrong with using the power of the Internet, any common links in your network or something similar to find out a bit more. Again, this is not necessarily to uncover any negatives, it can also serve to bring out some positives that may not have come out of the process so far.
Whose responsibility is it to take references?
In short, it is everyone’s responsibility because each stakeholder (recruiter, hiring manager, HR) has a vested interest in getting it right. As an agency recruiter I will conduct references, both for my own satisfaction and also because my client is paying me to. However, hiring managers should also take it upon themselves to conduct their own background checks and HR should ensure this happens. At the end of the day, they are ultimately the one making the offer, employing the person and paying the wages.
My last piece of advice on this topic ….do not bury your head in the sand if something crops up that is a concern. Don’t go looking for problems, but if something needs investigating further then investigate it. Whether you are an agency recruiter looking to close a deal, an internal recruiter looking to close off a process or a hiring manager desperate to fill a vacant role, it might be tempting but you ignore potential issues at your peril.
So next time you are referencing a candidate ask yourself honestly  “have I checked under the bonnet?”

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