Avoiding Complications Inherent in Using Employee References

Accurately evaluating the skills and experience of a complete stranger for an open position in your organization requires the skilled application of all available information. Unfortunately, many of the tools that recruiters rely on are flawed or biased to some degree. Information on applications and resumés is often subject to elaboration or inflation, and in most cases, references will paint an optimistic picture of a candidate. These people are usually cherry-picked by the candidate for that very reason.

Many may not realize that employee references are a poor evaluation tool if they are only used primarily to find out what the referee wants to tell you about a candidate. Hearing that Sally is a hard worker and knows how to get the job done is great, but it tells you little about Sally as a manager, co-worker, or problem-solver. An employee reference should serve a couple of distinct purposes.

  • Provide Facts – The referee is a source of factual information you can use to confirm what the candidate has told you. In some cases, references may limit what they tell you to just the facts to avoid a legal dispute for showing bias. The information provided should help you spot areas on a candidate’s application that may have been embellished or even lied to look better on paper.
  • Add Perspective – As a recruiter or interviewer, the candidate allows you to see one side of them, that of an applicant. Talking with someone who has worked with them daily for years sees them at their best and worst. They become aware of strengths and weaknesses and can shed light on what it may be like working side-by-side with this person.

Getting the Most from Employee References

In the right hands, employee references can provide key information and steer your recruiting towards the best candidate. Here are some crucial rules to follow when talking to an employee reference.

1. Ask for the References You Want

If your application simply asks for three references, each candidate will list the three people they believe will paint the most favorable picture of them. These three people may not be in the best position to provide the recommendation, though. To get a well-rounded picture of an individual at work, you need to speak with someone they worked for, someone who worked for them, and one of their peers. Ideally, these people should be individuals with which they interacted daily in the past five years. These individuals will be able to shed light on their character, as well as their management style, work ethic, and interpersonal skills.

2. Avoid Leading Questions

In a recommendation setting, questions with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer naturally lead the referee to a single conclusion. Asking – “Is Bob an effective manager?” – will almost always yield the same answer. “Yes.” A more revealing question would be – “Can you tell me about Bob’s management style?” Open-ended questions like this one may yield many different responses.
Listen to what they and how they say it. Asking follow-up questions and inquiring about specific examples that illustrate their opinions are especially helpful. As they speak, pay attention to their tone and the tempo of their speech. If it takes a long time for them to produce an example that illustrates Sarah’s work ethic, you may be justified in questioning how strong it truly is.

3. Check References Early

Some employers prefer to interview candidates and form their own opinions about who to hire before talking to their references. Leading a candidate to an offer or making the offer contingent upon checking their references can leave you in a sticky spot if you don’t hear what you would like to from a past employer or co-worker. Before entering into any agreements with applicants, it is best to check their references and validate their credentials. You need to know to whom you are offering the job.

4. Include the Candidate

It may seem counterintuitive to involve the candidate in your reference checks. However, doing so can be the smartest move you make. Referees are not likely to want to bring up employee weaknesses or shortcomings. They were selected to make the candidate look good and don’t want to be the cause of an opportunity lost.

Before you talk to any of the provided references, ask the candidate about their weaknesses. Ask them what their former employer would say if you asked them. Gather information directly from your applicant. Then, when you speak to their reference, you can ask them to comment on information you already know. They will feel freer to talk to you about the negative if they don’t have to bring it up.

5. Two Sides

Remember that there are two sides to every story. When you talk to two different individuals, you will likely get slightly different pictures of the same thing. Information from a referee that does not entirely mesh with what a candidate said may not be a direct lie. Some discrepancies may be resolved by revisiting them with the candidate.

Skilled recruiters understand the common mistakes employers make when talking to referees to vet their candidates. Partnering with a recruitment firm can save you time and money sorting through applications and conversing with references. They can verify each candidate’s qualifications before you interview them, ensuring that you get a stack of resumés from the best candidates for the position from day one.