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What value would you give to references in the context of a structured hiring process?

The deficit of qualified and skilled labor now forces organizations to review their recruitment process to make it optimal and more performant.

Indeed, since it is getting harder to attract good candidates, it is important to make sure not to miss the available skilled resources. In a formal screening process, candidates consent to several steps, amongst others, the curriculum vitae selection, telephone interview, behavioural interview and some validation steps, such as psychometric tests, the judicial and financial records verification, as well as a delicate step, that is, employment references consulting.

This step, determining for some and common for others, usually takes place at the end of the process, just before writing the formal offer. It is used most of the time to confirm or disconfirm general impressions and perceptions experimented during the interviews. Since this critical step is at the end of the process, it is your last chance to objectivize your candidates.

As many situations may turn sour during this step, we propose to summarily clarify its proceedings for you. It is important to treat this step with meticulousness, because many candidates with a strong potential may have eluded you for various reasons. It is said that interviewing is an art; consulting references also is. What importance should you give to this step?

Validate the source

First, in order to respect the legality and ethics of this approach, the candidate must formally authorize (preferably in writing) this verification. This little, but important detail will allow you to avoid many inconveniences for the rest of the process. Usually, the candidate is the one who provides a list of people to contact, at the employer’s request.

You must understand that we do not make a judgement, but people listed as references rarely provide bad comments, since they have been selected by the candidate, who hopes to pass this step easily. We do not pretend that the candidate is in collusion with his/her references, but he/she surely prepares them for an eventual call. After all, nobody would recommend its worst enemy. This is also an interesting lead to be followed.

Too often, references are not the best people to properly answer judiciously asked questions: a former colleague that became boss, a colleague of the same hierarchical level, a supplier, a personal assistant, etc.

Moreover, the simple letter of reference is often nearly invalid. Make sure to question the signatory to confirm the facts. These letters are sometimes written to cover a tumultuous end of employment. It is crucial to validate the source and know how to balance and interpret the information received, if need be. If in doubt, do not hesitate to ask for other relevant references: a subordinate, a line supervisor, etc. An accurate analysis must be carried out.

Besides the source’s validity, what would you ask a respondent? Try, insofar as possible, to interrogate him/her with development questions instead of forced-choice items. A professional aware of the art of consulting references will be able to detect certain slippery issues and ask more specific questions to clarify any ambiguities.

If you question the supervisor of a key employee a couple of days after his departure, his/her comments will probably be bitter and cold, what could be interpreted as an average reference. However, if you examine the file and gain the resource’s confidence, you will rapidly detect that a certain disappointment due to the departure is clouding the situation.

Beware of a prodigious reference as much as a terrible one. Very good comments are not always a guarantee of success. On the contrary, negative references do not necessarily mean that the candidate is not qualified for the proposed challenge. Verify the context in which the reference is given and do not take anything for granted; ask questions and draw your own conclusions.

Reference step is a work tool

Considering the uncertainty of the information obtained during the validation of employment references, we suggest you to only give this step a relative value. Furthermore, according to some surveys, the validation of references does not get a very high rating in the forecast of a future success.

If your strategy was exclusively based on this step, we strongly recommend you to review your position and make more efforts in the beginning of the approach, that is, by favouring a structured process in which the reference step is a work tool, not a decision one.

In conclusion, remember that every step is important in a screening process and deserves to be treated with diplomacy, respect and professionalism. Thus, the next time that you will interrogate a respondent, make sure to validate the source’s credibility and the context in which the candidate worked. Ask questions regarding tasks, achievements and the termination of employment, and allow yourself to interpret and balance the message, if need be. After all, would you allow a perfect stranger to decide the future of your process, considering the efforts you invested in the previous steps?

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