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Savvy applicants always choose and list their references carefully, but in end, many hiring mangers ultimately ignore these references and make their final decisions based on other criteria. Reference check omissions are especially common among short term or lower level positions, and they happen for a host of reasons. Among these reasons, they’re time-consuming and inconvenient, they’re socially awkward, and they often result in vague praise that may or may not reveal anything meaningful about a candidate’s aptitude for a specific job.

As hiring managers, if we feel strongly about a candidate after chatting with her during an interview, our minds are often made up, reference check or no reference check. But is it wise to dismiss the opinions of a reference so easily? Can a five minute conversation with a stranger actually change our minds or provide meaningful information that can inform our next move? If you choose to follow up and contact every reference listed by a candidate—and you should—take the following considerations into account.

Gaining Insights from a Reference Check

1. Who exactly are you calling? And what does this reveal about your candidate? If all of her listed references are professors, this suggests strong academic credentials. But what about on-the-job experience? If her references are co-workers rather than superiors, take note of this and determine how this detail meshes with the rest of her personality profile.

2. When you contact these people, do you find it easy to reach them? If you leave messages with several people and none of them return your calls, this might suggest a lack of enthusiasm.

3. Unprompted responses are often the most revealing. Do the references refer to the applicant as “a delight to work with”, “consistent”, or “creative”? Listen carefully. If you hear one word repeated several times, that word may express volumes about your future relationship with this person.

4. Be alert to red flags like confusion (“I’m not sure who that is”), discomfort, a desire to end the call quickly, and vague language (“we never had a serious problem with her, as far as I know, anyway”).  Negative references are almost never direct. No one ever says “Don’t hire her!” As a manager, it’s your job to read between the lines.

5. If the references have since left their companies and you find yourself speaking to someone who doesn’t know your candidate personally, don’t expect to learn more than her dates of employment and the title of her former position. Don’t be put off by this. The business world is a place of constant change, and your candidate isn’t obligated to hand out the personal phone numbers of her previous bosses. Just learn what you can from the information that is– and isn’t– available to you.

For more information about effective hiring strategies and more help with the candidate selection process, call the HR pros at RPC today. We’re the top resource for your Dallas Fort Worth staffing needs.

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