How to conduct an effective reference check


When HRM reported on a study by recruitment data company Xref that found that a significant amount of recruitment managers consider reference checking in its current format “a formality which serves little purpose”, readers responded with vigour. Here, we reflect on the debate and look at the legalities involved.

 

The AHRI community’s response

Most website editors give pause before delving into the comment section of one of their stories, especially if a comment begins: “I really disagree with this article.” But at HRM dissent spurs discussion, and HR professionals share their experiences and a wide variety of opinions.

Our article on reference checks is a good example. 

Good and bad reference check practices

“I don’t support online reference checks at all because there are so many variables that come into play that will make it less accurate, particularly if rating scales are used” says Cassandra Winnacott. But she didn’t believe that meant all reference checks were useless. “Research says ‘the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour’ so if it’s used correctly, a reference check is actually a great way to get a glimpse of a person’s behaviour.”

As for advice for fellow HR professionals, readers such as Nick Hutchinson suggest that while it’s true that asking set questions doesn’t add value to candidate validation, departing from the script may offer unexpected insights. “Dig a little deeper with your questions,” he says.

Kevin agrees. “I have used the reference check process to help clarify minor concerns that appeared during the selection process. This has involved probing and testing some responses whilst being open and transparent.” The result, he says “has been a more informed view that enabled the probation period to be used more effectively.”

Yet many agreed that even convincing referees should be seen as “unreliable narrators” – and be treated with a healthy dose of scepticism.

Most respondents also agreed that the “inexperienced recruiter” ticking boxes, rather than conducting a thorough investigation, is to blame for the poor reputation of reference checks. In this case, both phone and online reference checks are susceptible to the alleged 70 per cent of candidates able to manipulate the process.

What the law says

“A misleading or erroneous reference can be costly”, says John Wilson, managing legal director, Bradley Allen Love. For example it might result in hiring, “a candidate who requires more training than their reference suggests, or may be entirely unsuited for the position.”

What’s more, legal issues can arise in the case of a derogatory reference, says Wilson. He also says it’s surprising, given the vulnerability workers and prospective employers have to inaccurate references, that past employers have few legal obligations to be honest.

To the points raised by readers, Wilson says that hiring managers should be aware that it is “not uncommon for an employer and outgoing employee to agree upon a reference if the employment relationship breaks down and the employee exits by way of a settlement deed.” These references – typically positive or neutral – might not reflect the employer’s true sentiment.

“If Australian courts do establish a duty to provide accurate references,” says Wilson, “employers could be in breach of that duty by giving a false-positive, albeit agreed, reference.” However, while the law remains unsettled, employers remain in an uncomfortable position.

“Because it is far harder to attach liability for omissions than positive statements, where possible, employers should only include objectively verifiable statements in an agreed reference.”

What’s the best way to conduct a reference check?

Where co-founder and CEO of Xref, Lee-Martin Seymour, suggested organisations need to turn to technology-driven options that allow referees the privacy, anonymity and time to provide honest and useful feedback, most readers agreed the best way to get valuable information from a reference check is to ensure a skilled HR professional personally conducted it.

Sam Smith spoke for many by advocating for the value of a well-executed reference check.

“Reference checks may take time but there have been a number of instances where they have provided a red flag for us during a very important recruitment decision process,” he says. “ In turn saving us money and effort in the long run.”

And as another reader, Taryn, says, all stages of the recruitment process are about gathering information and validating it with the next stage of the process. “No stage should be treated independently, or looked at in isolation from other stages.”

AHRI National Convention

Hone your HR knowledge and skills in a full-day workshop with global experts, as part of the AHRI National Convention and Exhibition in Sydney (21−23 August). Registration closes 11 August 2017.

8
Leave a reply

avatar
100000
  Subscribe to receive comments  
Notify me of
Han Szurek
Guest
Han Szurek

I agree with Taryn that it shouldn’t be looked at as a standalone piece – it is very much an opportunity to follow up on any niggles that have been raised by the rest of the process, and recruiters / hirers should feel comfortable sharing some of their insights, in order to prompt a more honest response. In my opinion, the area that needs to be explored is who the referee is – candidates will only provide people who will be positive about them. That is human nature. More often than not, they are still in contact with that person… Read more »

Jennifer Howe
Guest
Jennifer Howe

I agree with Han that who is listed as a referee is important, but more important can be who isn’t. If past reporting managers are not listed, you should ask why. There may be valid reasons but probing can sometimes produce some interesting insights. Two questions I always ask in a reference check are “is there anything else a future employer should be aware of?”, and “would you recommend xxx to us?”. The first is a way of finding out things that may have been as issue that you didn’t or couldn’t ask about. The second sets a much higher… Read more »

Scott Timmins
Guest
Scott Timmins

I think whats interesting is that from my experience many people have actually made up their mind by the time they get to referee checks and are just looking for confirmation. I coach people prior to a recruitment process to coach their referees as to what you want them to focus on. Remember that most people only give you the best referees who will make them sound like a demigod. I encourage recruiters and panel members to ask behavioral questions of the referees instead of leading questions – For example: Instead of asking – Would you say that John deals… Read more »

Stephen McClounan
Guest
Stephen McClounan

The problem with humans describing other humans, for reference checking purposes, is their intrinsic subjectivity. Just look at the way different HR professionals can sometimes describe the same candidate. We could describe a self-confident person as decisive or perhaps even aggressive. Same person; different descriptors; different spin. One insightful HR professional pointed out that it is often said that people leave managers, not companies. So how can all managers be relied upon to give an accurate assessment of a candidate? How do you reference check a referee? Who’s to say the referee isn’t tainted in some way? And, if a… Read more »

Taryn
Guest
Taryn

Thanks for the quote, AHRI!

More on HRM
Sorry, no posts matched your criteria.

How to conduct an effective reference check


When HRM reported on a study by recruitment data company Xref that found that a significant amount of recruitment managers consider reference checking in its current format “a formality which serves little purpose”, readers responded with vigour. Here, we reflect on the debate and look at the legalities involved.

 

The AHRI community’s response

Most website editors give pause before delving into the comment section of one of their stories, especially if a comment begins: “I really disagree with this article.” But at HRM dissent spurs discussion, and HR professionals share their experiences and a wide variety of opinions.

Our article on reference checks is a good example. 

Good and bad reference check practices

“I don’t support online reference checks at all because there are so many variables that come into play that will make it less accurate, particularly if rating scales are used” says Cassandra Winnacott. But she didn’t believe that meant all reference checks were useless. “Research says ‘the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour’ so if it’s used correctly, a reference check is actually a great way to get a glimpse of a person’s behaviour.”

As for advice for fellow HR professionals, readers such as Nick Hutchinson suggest that while it’s true that asking set questions doesn’t add value to candidate validation, departing from the script may offer unexpected insights. “Dig a little deeper with your questions,” he says.

Kevin agrees. “I have used the reference check process to help clarify minor concerns that appeared during the selection process. This has involved probing and testing some responses whilst being open and transparent.” The result, he says “has been a more informed view that enabled the probation period to be used more effectively.”

Yet many agreed that even convincing referees should be seen as “unreliable narrators” – and be treated with a healthy dose of scepticism.

Most respondents also agreed that the “inexperienced recruiter” ticking boxes, rather than conducting a thorough investigation, is to blame for the poor reputation of reference checks. In this case, both phone and online reference checks are susceptible to the alleged 70 per cent of candidates able to manipulate the process.

What the law says

“A misleading or erroneous reference can be costly”, says John Wilson, managing legal director, Bradley Allen Love. For example it might result in hiring, “a candidate who requires more training than their reference suggests, or may be entirely unsuited for the position.”

What’s more, legal issues can arise in the case of a derogatory reference, says Wilson. He also says it’s surprising, given the vulnerability workers and prospective employers have to inaccurate references, that past employers have few legal obligations to be honest.

To the points raised by readers, Wilson says that hiring managers should be aware that it is “not uncommon for an employer and outgoing employee to agree upon a reference if the employment relationship breaks down and the employee exits by way of a settlement deed.” These references – typically positive or neutral – might not reflect the employer’s true sentiment.

“If Australian courts do establish a duty to provide accurate references,” says Wilson, “employers could be in breach of that duty by giving a false-positive, albeit agreed, reference.” However, while the law remains unsettled, employers remain in an uncomfortable position.

“Because it is far harder to attach liability for omissions than positive statements, where possible, employers should only include objectively verifiable statements in an agreed reference.”

What’s the best way to conduct a reference check?

Where co-founder and CEO of Xref, Lee-Martin Seymour, suggested organisations need to turn to technology-driven options that allow referees the privacy, anonymity and time to provide honest and useful feedback, most readers agreed the best way to get valuable information from a reference check is to ensure a skilled HR professional personally conducted it.

Sam Smith spoke for many by advocating for the value of a well-executed reference check.

“Reference checks may take time but there have been a number of instances where they have provided a red flag for us during a very important recruitment decision process,” he says. “ In turn saving us money and effort in the long run.”

And as another reader, Taryn, says, all stages of the recruitment process are about gathering information and validating it with the next stage of the process. “No stage should be treated independently, or looked at in isolation from other stages.”

AHRI National Convention

Hone your HR knowledge and skills in a full-day workshop with global experts, as part of the AHRI National Convention and Exhibition in Sydney (21−23 August). Registration closes 11 August 2017.

8
Leave a reply

avatar
100000
  Subscribe to receive comments  
Notify me of
Han Szurek
Guest
Han Szurek

I agree with Taryn that it shouldn’t be looked at as a standalone piece – it is very much an opportunity to follow up on any niggles that have been raised by the rest of the process, and recruiters / hirers should feel comfortable sharing some of their insights, in order to prompt a more honest response. In my opinion, the area that needs to be explored is who the referee is – candidates will only provide people who will be positive about them. That is human nature. More often than not, they are still in contact with that person… Read more »

Jennifer Howe
Guest
Jennifer Howe

I agree with Han that who is listed as a referee is important, but more important can be who isn’t. If past reporting managers are not listed, you should ask why. There may be valid reasons but probing can sometimes produce some interesting insights. Two questions I always ask in a reference check are “is there anything else a future employer should be aware of?”, and “would you recommend xxx to us?”. The first is a way of finding out things that may have been as issue that you didn’t or couldn’t ask about. The second sets a much higher… Read more »

Scott Timmins
Guest
Scott Timmins

I think whats interesting is that from my experience many people have actually made up their mind by the time they get to referee checks and are just looking for confirmation. I coach people prior to a recruitment process to coach their referees as to what you want them to focus on. Remember that most people only give you the best referees who will make them sound like a demigod. I encourage recruiters and panel members to ask behavioral questions of the referees instead of leading questions – For example: Instead of asking – Would you say that John deals… Read more »

Stephen McClounan
Guest
Stephen McClounan

The problem with humans describing other humans, for reference checking purposes, is their intrinsic subjectivity. Just look at the way different HR professionals can sometimes describe the same candidate. We could describe a self-confident person as decisive or perhaps even aggressive. Same person; different descriptors; different spin. One insightful HR professional pointed out that it is often said that people leave managers, not companies. So how can all managers be relied upon to give an accurate assessment of a candidate? How do you reference check a referee? Who’s to say the referee isn’t tainted in some way? And, if a… Read more »

Taryn
Guest
Taryn

Thanks for the quote, AHRI!

Sorry, no posts matched your criteria.
More on HRM