A Reference Check’s Three Variables

Several months ago a Senior Recruiter called me with a question on reference checks. He explained that while taking a search from one of his new clients they asked him to “Explain your reference checking process.”

After describing his response, which included a recommendation that the client independently verify all references, the Recruiter asked how I would have responded to such a request. Although this Recruiter provided his client with a basic understanding of his process, he may have missed an opportunity to enhance his stature on a qualitative basis (See TFL – 07/06 – “Reference Checks – Versatile and Profitable”).

As I explained, the first thing to do is determine why the client expressed an interest in this process. A simple question, similar to the following, may have provided the answer. “Specifically, what is it you would like to know?”

The answer should guide the response. As the old adage goes, “If they ask for the time, don’t build them a clock.”

Most Recruiters check references. Some do it in a cursory manner, validating a few key pieces of information while others follow a set-questioning format. Some, depending on the circumstances, conduct in-depth references encompassing carefully prepared validation and behaviorally based questions. In fact, depending on the circumstances and the business model of the recruiting firm, the reference checking process could be quite different.

Generally speaking, when we’re asked about our reference checking process the client is just trying to determine whether or not we really do check references and, if so, from a qualitative standpoint, will the results of our efforts be credible.

Therefore, when responding to their request, all of the following variables should be discussed, and depending on their reason for asking, one or more should be emphasized.

Timing – When to make the reference call.
Contact – Who to contact on the call.
Questions – What questions to ask on the call.

Depending on the purpose for the reference, all three of these variables could differ in that one may determine the nature and scope of another. Consequently we need to understand and be prepared to discuss how each may vary in the course of completing a valid reference check.

Timing – When to make the reference call.

An initial reference call may be completed prior to considering a candidate for presentation to your client. Many times these calls primarily focus on validating the information provided by the candidate. Of particular importance is validating the candidate’s qualification in light of the position for which they are being considered.

Additional references should be completed after the candidate’s first interview with your client if both parties express a genuine interest in pursuing a potential employment relationship.

A final round of referencing may be required prior to an offer or immediately after its conditional acceptance (conditional based on the successful completion of the referencing process). Many times this is required if the candidate has been conducting a covert job search or if they have been recruited and are still employed.

Overall, the timing of reference checks are determined by your business process model, the selection criteria that need to be met in order to qualify for the position, the employment status of the candidate, and the specific requirements of the client.

Contact – Who to contact on the call.

The individual to contact on the call should be determined by the timing and purpose of the reference.

For example, if it is prior to a conditional offer and the candidate is conducting a covert job search, your process needs to be guided by a certain degree of confidentiality. Therefore, the contacts generally do not include the candidate’s present employer although they may include a trusted confidant or coworker.

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Additional contacts may include previous employers, coworkers, and, where the client is seeking an accomplished sales professional, you would do well to contact both past and present clients. Of course, where confidentiality is a requirement, all contacts should be cleared with the candidate before making the reference calls.

When the candidate is unemployed or is seeking another position with the full knowledge and/or support of their present manager, they should be contacted as early as possible in the process.

Remember,
When checking references, you need to speak with those individuals who have first hand knowledge of the candidate’s ability to solve problems and achieve results. In most instances this will be the individual to whom they directly reported, coworkers and other managers with whom they interfaced, and when appropriate, clients or customers.

Questions – What questions to ask on the call.

Most Recruiters utilize an industry standard reference form that generally contains 12 to 20 questions. These forms are particularly useful for validating information on the candidate when conducting preliminary reference checks. However, in order to receive in-depth information, you need to conduct structured, behaviorally based reference checks. This can be achieved by asking follow-up questions to those on your present format. The number of questions is not as important as how well you layer and sequence the follow-up questions. It’s through the answers to the follow-up questions that you receive the greatest in-depth information on your candidate.

If your standard process includes developing a custom questionnaire with your client to use in screening your candidates, you should include many of these same questions in a customized reference check.

The type of questions you ask should vary depending on the reference contact. For instance, you would ask a trusted coworker different questions than a past supervisor, and you would ask one of the candidate’s clients different questions than you might ask their present manager.

With timing, contacts, and questions all being variables, it is advantageous to review the reference-checking process with your client at the time you take the job order/search. Make certain they understand the three variables and how they interact. Then, together with your client, design a referencing strategy (including questions) that provides the greatest likelihood of producing valid, job-related information. In this manner you will enhance the credibility of your process while building a closer working relationship with your client.

As always, if you have questions or comments, just call or drop me an e-mail. It’s always good to hear from you.

Terry Petra is one of our industry’s leading trainers and consultants. He has successfully conducted in-house programs for hundreds of search, placement, temporary staffing firms and industry groups across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, England, and South Africa. To learn more about his training products and services, including “PETRA ON CALL”, visit his web site at: www.tpetra.com. Terry can be reached at (651) 738-8561 or e-mail him a: Terry@tpetra.com.

Recipient of the Harold B. Nelson Award, Terry Petra is one of our industry's leading trainers and consultants. He has successfully conducted in-house programs for hundreds of search, placement, temporary staffing firms and industry groups across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, England, and South Africa. To learn more about his training products and services, including PETRA ON CALL, and BUSINESS VALUATION, visit www.tpetra.com. Terry can be reached at (651) 738-8561 or click to email him.

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