Don’t Hire Them… Hire Their References!

It is interesting that a large majority of all U.S. firms use reference checks as a final screen for their applicants. However, few have any data to prove that applicants who get high scores from references outperform those applicants who get lower scores. Reference checks, may actually screen out bold thinkers and innovators who along their career may have challenged the expected way of thinking of their conservative managers. Innovative recruiters might also find that references have other value well beyond their traditional use as assessment tools. Some examples include: Hire Their References:

When an applicant gives the company a list of professional references, he/she generally selects people that are at least one level above them in experience and skill. A wise recruiter will immediately understand that if the candidate you have selected is very good, the odds are that their references will the be even better. References can be targeted as prospects for current openings or as “future” hires. If you’re considering references for the current position, you can get a quick assessment of their skill level when you call them for the reference check. References are also essentially ?pre-screened? by your current candidate. During the reference call, in addition to getting basic information about the candidate you can also probe further for information about the reference that may help you determine if you should also hire the reference. In any case, the names of quality references should be added to your “Who’s Who” database for future hiring consideration. Ask Their References to Refer Others:

If in fact this applicant is a quality candidate, the odds are that the references will know other quality people at this skill level. As a result, the firm should consider asking references to become outside “referrers” of current and future talent. During the reference call, the reference should be immediately asked for the names of other qualified candidates and an attempt should be made to make these references long term “friends” of your company. Ask them to assist you in finding other qualified candidates and reward them (when it is appropriate) with a referral bonus either for providing the names of great prospects or for actual hires. You can also put them on your e-mail newsletter list and you can “push” relevant open jobs to them in the hope that they may consider accepting the job themselves or that they may refer others to you. Turn References Into “Salespeople”:

Instead of grilling references about your applicant, consider the fact that before an applicant accepts your offer they will generally call several of their friends and colleagues (who are generally also their references) for advice on whether to accept your offer. If you know this fact, you can take advantage of this phenomena by using your reference call to “sell” the reference on the merits of the job and the company. If when questioning them during the reference check you subtly demonstrate the quality of your management and the benefits of your firm, then you will increase the likelihood that the reference will recommend acceptance of the offer when the applicant calls them and asks for their opinion. Reference Calls May Help You Sell Your Product:

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In addition to gaining reference information, the referral call can become a “sales call.” A well done call can help you build your brand image as a great place to work. It may also influence the references (who are frequently in the same industry as you) to buy your product. On the First Day of Hire…Get Them to Help:

Even if you don’t hire the references initially, it is wise to ask the new hire (on their first day) to become an instant recruiter. Ask them directly to help you recruiter their references to your firm. Although occasionally there is some reluctance, the thought of working with some of their top colleagues and friends can only help enhance your chances of retaining them. If you choose to use any of the above techniques, you’ll find that it is in your best interest to increase the number of references you request from the standard three up to as many as six. If they come from a top firm, you can specify that a certain number of their references should be from their current firm. This will give you additional “pre-screened” prospects for future searches. If you wish to improve the quality of your reference checking process, you should also assign a numerical score to each completed reference. Then at the end of the year when you rank the top performers check and see if in fact the top performers have higher average reference scores than the low performers. Don’t be surprised when references turn out to have know better predictive value for most jobs than flipping a coin! You should also check the reference scores for those you terminate to double check on their predictive value. Using the above techniques also means you can no longer have “the intern” do your reference checks. Reference check people need to be well-trained in the above techniques if they are to be successful.

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



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