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References in recruiting – are they important?

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Sometimes people wonder if having references is a must-have. Having no references may not always be a deal-breaker. It is possible to land a job on your own. But having references is always an asset. Fact is, nowadays asking the candidate for references in a recruiting process is standard practice. If your finalist competitor in the recruiting process has good references and you do not have any references at all, which candidate would you choose, if you were the hiring manager? A good reference can be a positive deal-breaker – in any job, on any level. So, from this point of view having some reference persons on your list is most recommendable.

 

I believe that anyone intuitively understands the purpose of a reference check, but people may still sometimes feel a little uneasy when asked for references, especially if this is the first time. When getting the question: “Do you have any references?" for the first time, all kinds of thoughts may spin around in our head simply because we do not perhaps fully understand what a reference check means. Why do they want to check me out? Don’t they believe what I tell them?  Do they think I have hidden secrets? I did not get along with my previous boss. What if he badmouths me? Can I give him as a reference? I once made a mistake in my previous work. What if this comes up? I am not sure I know what my colleagues think of me. And so on.

 

I believe most have a pretty good understanding of what people think about them, so I would not worry too much about what people will say. I have done hundreds of reference checks, and I have never talked to anyone who deliberately badmouthed a candidate. I feel people try to answer the reference questions to the best of their ability, honestly and with no bad intentions.  In the absolute majority of the reference checks I have made the reference statements tend to reflect and strengthen the understanding and opinion we already have of the candidate. So, if you did not get along with your previous boss, or if you once made a mistake, do not feel too strongly about this. If this is the case, put the issue on the table, say so to the hiring manager in the recruiting process. We have all met persons we do not get along with, and we all make mistakes, so this is not necessarily any deal-breaker.

 

Also, things are not black and white. We may honestly feel we have done well, while our boss may have a slightly different view, or we may feel we have just done our job, while our boss and all our colleagues think we are super-good.

 

Why a reference check in the first place?

 

In a reference check, the hiring manager asks questions about the candidate from the referee because he/she wants to get a more detailed understanding of the candidate. The hiring manager may have met the candidate only for, e.g. two or three 1,5-hour interviews. Hence, it is quite understandable that he/she, on top of this, also wants to discuss with a few reference persons who have known the candidate for a longer time. To get more acquainted with the candidate. If the hiring manager asks for your permission to call your reference persons, he/she already feels that you are a good candidate and a potential winning candidate. Remember this.

 

Even though the ways and habits may differ in different countries, the reason for and the purpose of doing a reference check is the same everywhere. Simply put. We want to check if this is the right person for the job. Can he/she do the job? Does he/she fit into our company, our people, our ways and habits, our customers? What is his/her professional expertise like? If a manager level job – what is his/her management style, leadership style like. Are there any risks?

 

Important note: It is essential to understand that the questions asked are not only about checking if we are the right person for the job. Equally important, it is about checking if this is the right job, the right company, the right team or e.g. the right company culture for us. It is not a very good idea to land a job in a company where we do not fit in. I have said in a previous article I wrote some time ago that we are like a piece of a puzzle. In some places, we fit perfectly, in some other places not at all. So, even if the reference check may lead to you not getting the job, this may be in your best interest, even if it might not feel that way at the moment.

 

The most important thing

 

A reference check is only done with the prior explicit permission of the candidate in question, never without permission. Doing a reference check is a confidential discussion and is always made with the best interest of both parties in mind. A reference should support both parties when making an employment agreement. A reference statement is always confidential and is only given to the hiring manager. Sometimes there can be a recruiting service provider doing the reference check.

 

The referees

 

When thinking about whom to give as a referee, keep in mind, that a reference provided by the direct superior, a colleague or subordinate, has perhaps more weight than a reference given by someone interacting with the reference person only occasionally or from a distance. The further away from your job, the referee is, the less input this person can give of your job performance. The nature of the reference discussion is determined by what kind of relation the reference person and the referee have. Is the referee a present or previous employer/ superior/colleague/friend or a customer or a business acquaintance? So, one obviously must customise the line and tone of questioning according to the relationship in question.

 

The reference questions

 

It is only natural that a reference discussion includes talking about what we are like, about our strengths and weaknesses, what we are good at in our job, what perhaps not, about our achievements and maybe our “failures” too (if there are any). If I would give a list of referees, previous superiors, colleagues, customers, candidates I have worked with over the years, I am positive they would tell a lot of good things about me. However, knowing myself, I am also sure they would comment on some of my weaknesses or bad habits too. I do not expect my referees just to praise how good I am at everything I do; neither would I want them to do so. I expect them to describe me as they see me. It is in my best interest that they do so. When the hiring company knows me “in and out”, my pros and cons, and if I become the winning candidate, they can better plan my onboarding and maybe even customise the job description to fit me more accurately.

 

Anyone who wants to explore what kind of questions are typically asked in a reference check can have a look on the Internet. You can find numerous articles, and suggestions of reference check questions. What to ask in a reference check. The 50 most asked questions in a reference check. What not to ask in a reference check. It is always good to get perspective, but do not take everything you find for granted. It can be anybody’s opinion.

 

Fact-checking

 

When needed, we check the facts about the candidate. Fact-checking is such a diverse subject that it would require a long article of its own if we want to go into the details, so I here only shortly comment on this aspect.

 

The need for fact-checking varies much between countries. Finland, where I have lived and worked all my life, is a very transparent country. It is of no avail to any Candidate to give inaccurate facts about his/her education, career history or income because most of this information is publicly available and is rather easy to check by almost anyone.

 

In many other countries this kind of information may not be publicly available and therefore it is essential here to pay more attention to check these facts. In some countries, this may be very challenging and time-consuming indeed. Comparing countries like, e.g. Finland, Sweden, USA, Russia, China, Japan, Saudi-Arabia, India, everyone understands that the need for and how to do the fact-checking varies.

 

This is a good place to remind everyone about a critical point. Always stick to the facts. You can always choose your words and how you tell your story in a recruiting process, but never alter the facts. If you lie about something, no matter how “little” and get caught, it has the potential of destroying your career.

 

Regardless of country or culture, there also exist jobs, where fact-checking always is a must-have, e.g. for national security reasons. So, fact-checking can also be an integral part of the reference check discussions.

 

General

 

There are different countries, diverse cultures, and consequently also diverse ways. How the reference check is made and by whom varies because the ways, values and habits are different in different countries. The legislation is different. What is allowed in one country may not be allowed in another country, and vice versa. What is proper to ask in one country may not be appropriate in another country. How references are checked and how they are used in recruiting processes vary from company to company in the same country, and even down to the very persons doing the reference check. So there exist no “one only way” to do a reference check. That said, a reference check is always a very sensitive task and who asks, what to ask and how to ask is important, and to know how to do this “right” is equally important everywhere.

 

The Candidate’s point of view

 

I also advise all candidates to make their reference check of their potential future employer company. Internet is a good place to start, but there are also usually business magazines you can study. If the company has web shop activities, check the customer experiences and ratings. Check the company values. Do they coincide with your values? Check the finances. Try to check the company’s “future”. Will it still be there after three years. Some companies have excellent marketing and excellent employer branding. They might even be on “the most popular employer of the year-lists”, but the reality can be very different, revealing, in fact, a company that is mistreating its employees. As the saying goes, “Not all that glitters is gold”.

 

Try to find as detailed information as you can. If possible, also of the department, the function, the team, especially the superior, you are interested in. If your potential future boss has been in this position for, e.g. seven years already, is there any risk, he/she moves on shortly after you start? If you like this person, and he/she is one of the very reasons you are interested in the job, you need to try to check this out somehow. This is not a theoretical scenario. I have met persons, whose boss changed employer shortly after they came aboard, and then the new boss was not anymore to their liking and vice versa.

 

You can, e.g. on LinkedIn, try to find previous employees you can confidentially talk to and ask what kind of working place the company is. But remember, when doing your check, just as there are no perfect persons, there are no ideal companies either, so use your common sense when evaluating what you find. However, if you find too many “warning lights” in a company, maybe it is worth thinking twice about going there.

 

You can easily write ten pages about reference checking if you want to go into details. I know because I have done it elsewhere, but here, in this blog article, my purpose was only to highlight some basic facts relating to reference checks in recruiting. I hope this gives the reader some insight into the subject.

 

Final words

 

At least in an executive-level job hire checking the references should be part of any company’s best practice, a must-have. (Why not in any job, for that matter.) If I would apply for an executive-level job and no one would be interested in checking my references I would start to wonder if there was anything wrong with this company - because checking my references is also in my best interest. Do they hire all their people without checking any references, would be my next thought. And this would for me be a big red warning light.


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