On the surface, a reference check's purpose is to verify a candidate's
background information: Education, work history, job title, salary,
professional accomplishments and so forth.
Due diligence, after all, should play a key role in any important
decision. And as recruiters, it's our professional responsibility to
make sure the hiring managers we work with are empowered by the data we
provide, and protected against misrepresentation, deliberate or
To the savvy recruiter however, a reference check is much more than a
fact checking exercise. It's a vast ocean of information to explore, and
an invaluable tool that can turn doubt into confidence.
There are several different objectivesand potential objectiveswith
respect to reference checking. These range from the obvious, like making
sure everything lines up properly in the candidate's chronology, to the
less obvious, such as exploring marketing and lead-generation
opportunities with the person you're talking to.
But there's one objective that's mostly overlooked by recruiters. And
that's the chance to cross-reference the prospective employer's concerns
about the candidate, and find out whether any perceived weaknesses are
real, relevant or potentially game-ending.
Here's an example. Let's say the prospective employer youre working with
and your candidate have interviewed with each other a couple of times.
Both meetings went well. At the conclusion of your second-level
interview debriefing with the candidate, you correctly ask the closing
question, "Do you want the job?" and the candidate says yes. Later, at
the end of your debrief with the hiring manager, you ask if he likes
that person and wants to move forward, and he says yes. So then you ask
"Should I go ahead and contact the candidate's references and verify his
degree?" To which the hiring manager says, "Yes, by all means."
Now, here's the point at which most recruiters end the conversation, go
off on their merry way and start calling the references.
What you should do is slow down. Take a deep breath. And ask the
"Are there any areas of concern you have about the candidate? And if so,
is there a question I can ask the references that might be useful in
evaluating the candidate with respect to that concern and how it could
potentially impact the candidate's performance, if that person were to
join your team?"
Now, you might think this is exactly the wrong path to take. In other
words, why inject the element of doubt in the employer's heador worse,
reinforce a potential negative?
My answer is that the concern is going to be there anyway. And if thats
the case, I'd rather get it out in the open and deal with it now than
sweep it under the rug and let it become a big problem later.
Besides, the most powerful aspect of a reference check is the ability to
focus on the exact issue that concerns the prospective employer and let
a disinterested third party allay that fear. If I, the recruiter, were
to try to deal with the concern, it would probably be seen as an attempt
to serve my own interests at the expense of the employers.
But if the former employer can vouch for the candidate, the whole issue
can be put to restor depending on the judgment of the previous
supervisor, might even have the effect of converting a negative into a
positive. In sales, we call this technique "closing on the objection."
And it can be a beautiful thing.
If it turns out the hiring manager's concerns are well-founded, I
suggest you ask the same question to the next referenceand the next. If
there's unanimity of opinion, it's your duty to report back what the
references have said about the candidate. You may not be thrilled by
this turn of events, but at least you've done your duty, by providing
accurate information that can be used to weigh the candidate's
suitability for the job.
If there's no clear consensus regarding the concern, it's also your job
to put the feedback on the table, or even encourage a dialogue (if it's
appropriate to the situation) between the references and the new
I've learned that if you work proactively, reference checks can work not
only to your advantagebut to everyone's advantage. On the flip side,
being in denial or delegating the reference checking process to people
who are less experienced only closes the door on opportunities. And once
that door is closed, it can be a real struggle to get it opened again.