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What Every Recruiter Ought to Know About Candidates With Questionable References

by May 10, 2012, 7:04 am ET

If you have ever been in a situation when checking references on a candidate you uncovered negative references and/or performance reviews, you are not alone. What you do with the information is key.

This is one of the most misunderstood, hence mishandled, situations preventing good candidates from being hired. I have seen people get poor reviews because of “sour grapes,” and it happens more often than you may think. I’ve had managers tell me negative things about a former employee, and upon diving in and asking more detailed questions, determined the negative feedback to be sour grapes or a poor fit with culture or the manager. Oftentimes a hiring manager calls a former associate of his whom the candidate worked for and gets a lousy reference. In a split second the candidate is dropped from consideration without further investigation.

The opposite holds true of positive references: if the same manager gets a glowing reference on the candidate, he makes an offer. But neither of these situations individually indicates whether or not the candidate is “right” for you.

Benefit of the Doubt

When checking references on potential hires, remember that you must look at the circumstances by which the candidate received positive or negative feedback. Assuming a candidate is the “right” one for the job because of positive evaluations is just as problematic as assuming a candidate is the “wrong” one for the job because of negative evaluations. Due diligence is critical; dive deeply into any evaluation an individual received prior to you extending an offer of employment.

If you are able to uncover information about a potential hire who received poor evaluations or references from past employers, consider yourself ahead of the game. Remember … the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard about candidates who received glowing reviews, only to totally fail in their positions. Look at this as an opportunity to dive headfirst into why they received it. You need to speak to the evaluators as well as the candidate in question. Create a safe space for the evaluator and candidate to speak freely and without repercussion. Ask thoughtful questions that determine what was behind the negative or positive review. Just because a candidate was successful or unsuccessful in his last position will not directly indicate success or failure with your organization.

I’m not saying that a candidate with multiple poor employee evaluations shouldn’t raise a yellow flag. I’m saying that it’s imperative to ask questions of the evaluator that will provide you with answers that help you determine if it makes sense to move forward with your candidate.

Here are just a few questions to keep in mind that may very well cause an employee to receive poor evaluations:

  1. Was the employee a cultural mismatch with the company? This can be one of the biggest causes of trouble with an employee.
  2. Did the past company truly know the profile of a successful hire and determine it through an objective assessment? Many companies never assess and benchmark their employees to determine hiring profiles. Have you evaluated your employees to determine if this individual will be a fit for you? Gut feelings don’t count.
  3. Was he a fit with his past manager(s)? Maybe the manager turned out to be a micromanager. I know few successful professionals who will tolerate being micromanaged. In my experience, these folks end up leaving their company because of the manager.
  4. Did the hiring manager end up leaving and was he replaced with someone the employee was unable to work with? This usually happens because of what I’ve mentioned in #2 and/or because the interview process doesn’t work.

Since many companies don’t have clear alignment around talent and business strategies, you may have recruiters, HR professionals, and hiring managers automatically discounting candidates because they don’t know how to effectively check references. They may not have the knowledge to ask the best questions. They may not have the ability to get someone to open up to them about a former employee. They may not have the power or respect to have an open discussion about these things with their hiring managers.

Just remember that there is always a gray area and it is here where you need to be looking.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  • Jordan Clark

    Great read Carol, it definitely got me thinking, I see reviews as being a “double edged sword” meaning they can provide invaluable information on a candidate’s past or they can provide enough information to cause almost irreperable damage.

    As we see with the current debacle with Scott Thompson, the background check system (including references) is often a fragmented, missmanaged, underutilized system that varies in scope and dynamic and does a poor job of actually verifying the “value” of a potential candidate and their “fit” with the company.

    I think the problem is you see more and more recruiters judging books by their covers, potential candidates as a black and white, good or bad, one or the other, but I don’t necessarily think the blame rests solely on their shoulders. As companies do cut backs, realign their budget, they take away time and money for their recruiters to do a thorough background check, and often times outsource the whole process to a third party company to do the research, and then look at the Q&A (which is basically a “you get what you pay for” scenario, where the more you spend the more in depth the questions will be) and look at the results as black and white.

    The problem is the system in and of itself promotes a “cookie-cutter” mentality, where recruiters are given less time and money to find quality candidates in support of the quick and cheap method. Taking into account attrition, and turnover for the specific industry recruiters and the companies they are working for are looking for what was aptly put in a previous ERE article “filet mignon on a hamburger budget,” and use those cookie cutter principles, either good or bad to push through candidates that while in the short term seem like the black and white best fit for the company are in the long term the complete opposite.

    Definitely need to re-evaluate the system as a whole!

  • http://partner911.com Patrick Zaharoff

    Great article….. Many times recruiters are quick to exclude candidates. Just because there was one negative response you could also contact candidate peers to get their opinions on the candidate. http://www.keyresourceassociates.com

  • Keith Halperin

    Thanks, Carole. There are reference checks and there are background checks. Reference checks are basically due diligence, unless you find an idiot who doesn’t provide sterling references for us to check. Of course there are “back door references”(“We could do a back door reference, BUT IT WOULD BE WRONG!”) which can be more informative. Often it seems that managers prefer doing the reference checks themselves.

    In my years as recruiting, I’ve never personally performed a background check beyond a salary verification, always having them outsourced by the company.

    Keith

  • Bree J

    Very good piece Carol. You’ve basically outlined why, in a lot of cases, reference checks are not worth the paper they’re written on. Even if a candidate performed brilliantly in his/her former organisation, that’s not to say that he/she will do the same in their next org. It’s a minefield of potential issues. Whenever I do reference checks, I am also trying to gauge the credibility of the referee at the same time as I am trying to pluck out as much information as I can on the candidate.

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  • http://www.verticalelevation.com Carol Schultz

    Thanks for your comments. You are all correct in your assessments. The biggest challenge in reference checking is the ability to ask thought provoking questions of the referral and to have a very clear understanding of your needs. I am also a big advocate of checking “blind” references.

  • Yves Lermusi

    Carol one aspect that you do not discuss is how automated reference checking, like http://www.Checkster.com , is changing the equation. The main change is the volume, on average users of Checkster get 6 references, so if 1 is not great, your point is valid, but if let’s say 3 are not great it starts to be a trend. It is like if 3 out of 6 interviews are not great,…

  • http://www.verticalelevation.com Carol Schultz

    Yves: I didn’t cover it as it’s a topic that would warrant its own article. I’m not familiar with your company, but I generally look at technology as an adjunct that is only effective on top of a quality process that is already effective and works.

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  • http://www.peacehealth.org Theresa Mazzaro

    We use an amazing web-based program called Skill Survey. In our healthcare world, Skill Survey has assisted us with hiring not only the right person, but looking for specific attributes based upon job and the research into characteristics such as the Patient Experience and how it relates to HCAHPS scores. We are to the point of using this prior to interview – to help the managers identify topics of futher discussion during the interview and we educate and partner with them to use it as a tool and strategy to hire the best.

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