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A Missed Opportunity — Failing to Use References for Recruiting Top Talent

by
Dr. John Sullivan
Apr 8, 2013, 5:10 am ET

Most know references to be a tool for checking a candidate’s background, but reference-related factors can also be one of the simplest, cheapest, and effective areas for identifying top candidates.

Even the best corporations that excel at recruiting routinely fail to realize that references and the reference process itself can be powerful sources for identifying and selling top talent.

References should be considered valuable recruiting targets because anyone who is given as a reference by top talent is almost always more experienced and knowledgeable then the individual who designated them as a reference. The availability/visibility of references has dramatically increased now that the names of references can be easily found on the Internet and within LinkedIn. As a result, smart recruiting leaders and recruiters should re-examine references as one of the most underused but cost-effective areas for identifying top talent.

The Top 8 Most Effective Reference-related Recruiting Approaches

First clear away your narrow view of references and the reference-checking process, and expand your perspective to learn that there are many aspects of the process that can help you identify and sell top candidates. Once you become aware of these new recruiting opportunity areas, most find that they are easy to take advantage of because the related recruiting tools are simple, inexpensive, and relatively intuitive. These reference-related recruiting approaches can be used broadly or they can be focused on high-value or hard-to-fill job families. If you have three spare minutes, quickly scan the following reference-related recruiting approaches; you will find at least one that is worth trying. Although each one has proven to be effective as part of corporate recruiting, they are listed from the highest potential impact to the lowest.

Use LinkedIn endorsements and recommendations as recruiting targets — most recruiters already take advantage of LinkedIn as a recruiting tool and as a quick reference-check tool. However, many fail to fully use the increasingly popular endorsement and recommendation components of individual profiles.

Most recruiters already realize that a high volume of endorsements and recommendations is an indication that this is a top talent. However, many have yet to realize that those individuals who “endorse” an individual’s skills and expertise on their LinkedIn profile are also likely to be talented in the same areas. As a result, they should be considered as recruiting prospects.

Individuals who “recommend” top talent on their profile (this is a separate feature from endorsements) are likely to have worked with them at the organization cited in the profile, so they should also be considered as recruiting prospects. Fortunately, a simple click on the picture of an endorser/recommender on the profile will take you to the endorser’s public profile. Obviously the “LinkedIn connections” that a recommender has should also be considered as possible recruiting targets based on the premise that the best know and connect with the best people.
Boomerang rehires as a result of their reference-check call – one of the highest “quality of hire” results from “boomerang rehires,” — individuals who were previously top performers at your firm. Most corporations already have a corporate alumni program to remain connected with these individuals, but these programs don’t let you know when one of your target former employees has begun a job search. When a top former employee is seeking a new job, someone from the target company where they applied will call or contact your organization (as a previous employer) for a background reference check on them. Smart recruiting managers will see this as a recruiting opportunity, because that reference call to your firm should be viewed as “an alert” that signals that this highly desirable former employee is now an “active candidate” who is ready to leave their current job. That means that you should use that reference check as a trigger to directly contact them to see if they would consider returning to your firm (Note: when you contact the individual, there is no legal requirement that you tell them how you found out that they are looking for new job).

Obviously that contact must be immediate, because if the references are being checked, they are likely a finalist for a new job. If all reference requests must go through HR, you must develop a formal mechanism where HR immediately notifies a manager or a recruiter whenever a “targeted” former employee is undergoing a reference check. Educate your managers about this recruiting opportunity in the case that their former manager gets the reference contact directly. Because they are likely to be close to getting an offer, you also need an expedited assessment and recruiting process that can respond quickly if the target expresses any interest in returning to your firm.

Referrals from the references of recent hires — after a new hire has proven to be a top performer on the job after six months or one year, you now have a new reference-related opportunity. Because of their on-the-job performance, you now have hard evidence that the recommendations from the new hires references are accurate and that they “know top talent.” Smart recruiting leaders use this as an opportunity to contact the references of the best new hires with the goal of getting one or two referrals.

Have a recruiter make the call and start off by thanking them for their help in landing a top candidate. After praising them and telling them how accurate the recommendation was, ask them “Would you be willing to help out again by giving us some names of some other equally or better qualified candidates?” If they need more time to think of names, ask them for permission to contact them again in a day or so. Because these individuals have given a good reference once, it is highly likely that these new names will also be of high quality. If they do provide you with some top prospects, be sure and ask them if you can re-contact them periodically for future referrals. Obviously you should also consider targeting the proven references themselves for future positions at your firm.

Target the references of top current candidates – the references provided by promising candidates at your firm may be more qualified than your candidate. You should consider the references themselves as top prospects for direct hiring. Because you are going to call these references anyway, assign a recruiter to that call and use it as an opportunity to assess the reference’s capabilities and their willingness to consider a job at your firm. A reference who is interested, qualified, and available can be considered for either the current job opening or for another opening. If you have two openings, hiring one of them will likely also improve the chances of recruiting the other. If you are sold on the reference but can’t make an immediate hire, consider using your newly hired employee to help sell “their reference” if you pursue them at a later date.

Use their references to help sell the candidate – because references are often extremely close to the individuals who they are providing a reference for, they can help to influence their job acceptance. You can take advantage of this influence if, when you are calling a finalist’s references for a background check, you go a step further and try to turn these references into “salespeople” for your firm. References can be a powerful mechanism for selling your candidate because before a top applicant accepts any offer, they will almost always call several of their friends and colleagues for advice. At least one of those “should I accept?” advice calls will likely be to their references (the ratio will be even higher if you also ask for personal references). You can take advantage of this phenomenon by using your reference call to sell the reference on the merits of the job and your company. Having them understand and support your firm’s opportunity will increase the likelihood that the reference will positively talk your firm up and its features, as well as recommend acceptance of your offer when your candidate contacts them.

Capture the references of even mediocre individuals in high demand fields or top firms — if you are building a talent pipeline or database, realize that the references of even mediocre candidates are likely to be top-quality talent. When you’re searching through resumes in high-demand fields (even on a job board) you should be selectively capturing the names of impressive references. You can identify the top references either by their title or by the fact that they work at a firm that you have targeted for recruiting. Add the names of these high-value references to your “prospect database.” Consider the number of times that different qualified prospects provide these individuals as references as an indication of their relative recruiting value.

Ask for references early in the hiring process – many organizations only ask for references at the very end of the recruiting process because only the references of the final selected candidate (or your finalists) will actually be checked. As a result, you will never capture the references of top candidates who drop out early. A superior approach is to capture the professional references (names, titles, and their contact information) of all top candidates early on in the recruiting process, so that they are the most promising ones can be entered into your prospect database for future consideration.

Make references eligible for your referral program – although employee referral programs already provide the highest quality and volume of hires, the typical program can be made even more effective by expanding it’s eligibility list to include non-employees. This can include family and colleagues but it can also include proven references. By making proven “references” eligible to participate and then by sending them periodic reminders, you can expand the contact base of your referral program. In addition, whenever you talk to your own top employees, encourage them to submit their own references into your employee referral program.

Final Thoughts

It should be obvious by now that the reference checking process can indirectly provide multiple opportunities for name gathering, referrals, and selling the candidate. Unfortunately, the typical reference-checking process is not by itself a major contributor to recruiting success. The standard reference-checking process is full of problems, which I outlined in my articles “What’s wrong with reference checking?” Contributing to the problem is the fact that the design, the metrics, and the management and staffing of most corporate reference processes are all too often abysmal.

In order to take advantage of its expanded recruiting opportunities, you may need to rely on workarounds and on individual recruiters to implement some of the reference-related recruitment tools outlined above. On the positive side, there is little risk and almost no out-of-pocket costs associated with each of the outlined tools. If you’re not getting at least 10 percent of your top leads from references, in my experience, you are missing out on a great opportunity.

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.

  1. Keith Halperin

    Thank you, Dr. Sullivan Excellent points. My only disagreement is asking for references early on- as a candidate, I think it’s presumptuous on the company’s part- if you want a candidate’s references, you should be considering offering them a job.

    Cheers,

    Keith

  2. Jennifer Bilcze

    Thank you for this article, Dr. Sullivan. I do have a question- how would you propose handling the reference process in a high volume recruitment situation? It would be impossible to have high volume recruiters call every reference based on time & efficiency, so without adding headcount, how could high volume recruiters capatilize fully on the reference process? I would love to hear your thoughts!

  3. Keith Halperin

    @ Jennifer: You outsource it for a few dollars/hr to an offshore organization or free-lance person. If you could have a virtual assistant of the type I use do it, it would run around $2.50/hr, and if you absolutely needed someone more of an outward-telemarketing type of person (don’t know why, but you might) that runs $7.00-$8.00/hr. Finally, I know of an organization that handles complete candidate care for $1,700-$2,200/mo (last I recall), and they could do this…

    The Recruiting Task Rule of Thumb:
    If you aren’t prepared to pay at least $50/hr for someone to do it, you can (and probably should) “transource” (no-source, through-source, or out-source) it for minimum wage-cost or less.

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  6. Ashley Berger

    Dr. Sullivan makes a great point in this article when he states, “…recruiting leaders and recruiters should re-examine references as one of the most underused but cost-effective areas for identifying top talent.” To Keith and Jennifer who were discussing how to operationalize the large scale shift to make sure that the reference checking process becomes key to your recruiting success, online reference checking is a great solution. It increases your quality of hire and makes the reference checking process scalable and efficient. It also lets recruiters seamlessly build a talent network of passive candidates. The solution allows you to successfully fill open positions while at the same time adding to your pipeline. Visit http://www.SkillSurvey.com for additional information.

  7. Keith Halperin

    Thanks Ashley.
    SELF PROMOTER!

    As said on 3/29:
    Whenever somebody blatantly self-promotes, aka “advertises” their product, service, or book in an article or posting here on ERE(, they have to give the first person who notices it (and Todd and John Z, too) free use of it.If I’m the person, I’ll review it and write an article on it for ERE. I’ve already had a demo for one product this week (getting ready my notes for the article) one product this week, and waiting for the second self-promoter to get back to me.
    I look forward to trying/reviewing your service very soon. (BTW, if your promoting for a friend’s product or service, they still need to send it to Todd, John Z. and me.)

    Cheers,

    Keith keithsrj@sbcglobal.net
    YOWZA!

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