Are Reference Checks Making a Comeback in Tech?

Tech company hiring managers are doing more candidate gut checks by personally calling references

June 19, 2017

9 Min Read
Are Reference Checks Making a Comeback in Tech?

By Derek Handova

Reference checking is an HR dark art from the days of the pre-internet. Many of us haven’t had a reference check since we experienced our first retail job in high school. However, this practice could be making a comeback. Old-school tactics are new again. Hiring managers are using references to sanity check their gut feelings regarding applicants by personally calling previous bosses.

But it can be tricky. There are techniques to questioning references that hiring managers can use to elicit overt and subtext information to help determine if they’re getting honest answers and not just being told what references think they want to hear.

Build a ‘Relationship’ with the Reference

As in many endeavors of life, checking references can be done more effectively if you build a relationship with your counterpart. But how do you build a “relationship” on a 30- to 45-minute phone call? The secret could be avoiding the impression by the reference that your call is a one-way transaction of rote questions and making her feel as if she has a stake in the process by assuming your viewpoint as the hiring manager. A former IT executive of a niche grocery store chain did this by creating rapport with his callers.

“The technique is not about specific questions—I found that I needed to get into a conversation with the reference I was calling,” says Richard G. Lowe Jr., author and former director, computer operations, Trader Joe’s. “After letting them know I was doing a reference check, instead of jumping into questions about the applicant, I’d tell them about myself, ask about their job and get into a real dialog. Doing this, they would see me as a fellow manager and open up about their old employee.”

He goes on to say that reference checks cannot become a robotic task performed by HR. An honest, transparent reference can only be obtained by letting former managers know where you’re coming from, what you’re looking for and that you’re a human trying for the best candidate, according to Lowe. And this can never be done by email—only by phone, Skype or another real-time voice application.

“And the best question is: Knowing what you know now, if this person came to you for a job today, would you hire them?” Lowe says.

Taking the Reference Off Script

Another technique for getting the real deal on reference checks is to take the reference off script. This could mean a couple different things depending on the level of formality a reference’s company maintains about giving information on former employees. It may mean that the reference has an actual script to follow when fielding a call from an applicant’s potential new boss. Or it could mean that the reference has her own code of conduct about background questions—in general or case by case. However, the secret to making it work is not much different than getting actual information from any other source: by realizing that all persons want to talk sincerely about what they know, according to employment experts. And by conveying empathy with the source, chances of success are much higher.

“People want to talk—that’s just human nature,” says Lauren Milligan, career advancement coach, ResuMAYDAY. “And by modifying my persona to the personality of the employer, 90 percent of the time I can nudge the person to break their own HR policies and go off script.”

And while this method is designed to get the reference to divulge any less-than-flattering facts regarding the job candidate, it also has potential to surface champions of the applicant’s cause. Once the reference feels like she’s in her comfort zone, she may really open up.

“Once in a while employers that go off script give positive, glowing information and assure me that the former employee will continue to go on and do great things,” Milligan says.

Know Reference Checks Show You’re Serious About Hiring

It may not seem obvious on the face of it, or maybe we’ve all become so inured to strictures placed upon us by the HR powers that be in the way of hiring that it could seem like an afterthought, but reference checking is one of the most serious stages in the recruitment experience, according to veteran headhunters. And it is helpful for recruits to take it seriously, too, by making sure their previous managers and coworkers have all the information they need for an effective recommendation.

“The best tip or tactic job seekers can employ in reference checks is to carefully identify and coach references on the specific job function, duties and how previous experience with the reference helps them in this new job,” says Angelo Giallombardo, vice president, Central Executive Search. “Job seekers must contact every reference and explain what pain points, focus and details they need to express to the company conducting the reference check.”

And while important for the applicant to communicate the particulars to references about their job opportunities, an employer should beware overly prepped contacts in the process to find its next employees, according to company founders—especially for entrepreneurs just starting out. But never think of it as a negative task. Look to affirm the positive feelings you already have about a candidate.

“As the owner of a startup, I do reference checks,” says AJ Saleem, academic director, Suprex Learning, an online and offline education company. “Unlike others who use reference checks to change their minds, I use reference checks to confirm what I have already decided.”

For example, Saleem states that one of his prospective employees had all the right qualifications on paper—in fact the person was overqualified. Still Saleem felt something was not right. Being wary but unsure, Saleem called the provided reference and got responses that seemed canned and not genuine, in his opinion. In the end, he did not make the hire. More than 70 percent of the people reference checked this way have remained with the company, according to Saleem.

This demonstrates the power of being able to listen on the phone to the reference. Not just to what she may say but also in the way she says it.

“Call the reference check to understand the tone of voice, inflection and feeling of the reference check,”  Giallombardo says. “Ask tough questions, and let the reference speak freely. If it seems like they are holding back or not giving all the details, that is a red flag. If the reference seems forthcoming, that is a sign the candidate is well respected and a good worker. It’s important for employers to make the reference check a conversation about candidates and their traits, skills and integrity.”

Use LinkedIn to Find Common Connections with Applicants

While LinkedIn has been around for well more than a decade to inspire innovators and innovation management alike, its full utility can slip under the radar. All employers look at LinkedIn profiles to gauge the technical abilities of candidates in regard to their openings. They might even contact the people who offer open-ended, written profile testimonials. But have they forgotten about the six degrees of separation between the candidate and her potential new direct manager? With a few clicks of the mouse, the hiring manager could be in covert contact with a candid critique of the candidate. This can prove more valuable than any supplied references.

“The first thing I do is ignore all the references a candidate provides,” says Ashwin Krishnan, senior vice president, product management and strategy, HyTrust, provider of workload security for multi-cloud infrastructure. “That has no value, and I never ask for it. Instead, LinkedIn is a great way to see any common connections I have with that individual and if so I reach out to the strongest connection.”

Provided he is successful in connecting to a mutual contact, Krishnan poses one straightforward question to a quasi-reference: If you were the hiring manager and had only one opening for the foreseeable future would you hire Jane Doe. Why or why not?

“This always works since it puts the reference in a hypothetical situation where they are the decision maker and brings out all the fears and excitement,” Krishnan says. “It also determines whether the connection is even strong. In the case the connection isn’t that strong, they will self-recuse.”

Ideally, Krishnan performs three of these reference checks. He admits it’s time consuming but worth it to triangulate job performance from three divergent corporate perspectives over time.

“It allows different managers, colleagues and direct reports to weigh in on a candidate’s contribution, attitude and perception across various organizations,” Krishnan says, “and better correlates and highlights any unique conditions in that particular situation.”

Forced Distribution, Pause for Further Review

While gut instinct has a long, favorable history as a tool for judging talent, applying a bit of digitalization is very much in vogue with the times, according to some talent professionals. A forced distribution could impart a bit of “intelligence” to an otherwise purely intuitive process.

“In an era where everything is socially reviewed on Yelp, Amazon and Google—essentially reference checks for products, companies and services—why are hiring managers leaving it up to their gut?” asks Fletcher Wimbush, CEO, The Hire Talent, a talent assessment company. “So when speaking with the reference ask on a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate the candidate’s overall performance and why? And instead of asking what could the candidate improve on ask what they could do to get from 8 to 9 on overall performance.”

Wimbush only recommends this technique for use with direct supervisors because they are the most direct “consumer” of the employee work-product.

And while you can tell a story with stats, others still prefer a more indirect method to getting at the “truth” about a reference. This recalls the method of how a reference chooses to reply and after how long.

For example, human resources professional Jana Tulloch, CPHR, has a go-to question that gets there when she asks a reference: What was the biggest mistake the candidate made while employed with you, and how was it remedied?

“This might elicit a quick, ‘Gosh I can’t think of anything’ which means the candidate likely dealt with issues on their own and didn’t negatively impact operations,” Tulloch says. “A long silence might indicate there are too many mistakes to choose just one or one big one that likely won’t reflect well on the candidate. This is a great question to dig on if there isn’t something forthcoming or if the initial answer is shallow.”

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