Saturday, July 25, 2009

Tips for Employers, Joy Chen on Reference Checking

Nine Tips to Make Reference Checks Count

Do not ask the most commonly asked reference question: “Tell me about Susan’s strengths and weaknesses.” It prompts bland generalizations, and leads nowhere.

Here’s how to make reference checks count:

1. Create a roadmap. The goal of referencing isn’t to dig dirt, or to get gossip, but to verify a candidate’s fit for the position. Identify the specific skills, competencies and personal characteristics required for the position, and reference against those.

2. Focus on references from the past five years. People grow. Studies show that the best predictor of future behavior is immediate past behavior.

3. Conduct 360’ references. Don’t just speak with former bosses. If the candidate you are considering has already had some career success, she’s already shown some skill in managing upwards. Often, the most revealing references are provided by direct reports and peers.

4. Always go off-list. Inform the candidate that it’s your policy to identify and call people not on her list, and ask if she has any concerns with that. If yes, those concerns can be revealing. When speaking with her referees, always ask if there are others who might have different perspectives on what it was like to work with her. Then call them.

5. Take control of each call. Avoid wasting anyone’s time. Start each call knowing exactly what you’re after on that call. Could be one thing, or four, based on your referencing roadmap, and when and in what capacity this referee knows your candidate. Perhaps you have a question around a candidate’s departure from a certain job, or how well he manages his peers. If the conversation veers off-topic, promptly steer it right back to your agenda.

6. Get specific examples, then drill down. Don’t ask present-tense questions: “How does she…” Rather, get specific examples from the past: “Can you remember a time when Susan actively mentored a member of her team?” When you hear generalizations, get examples. For each example given, drill down to find out the original Situation, what Actions she took, and the Result of each example. S-A-R.

7. Identify developmental areas. One of my favorite questions, at the end, is: “If you were his executive coach, what would you have him working on in the next three years?” More effective than asking for the candidate’s weaknesses, and opens the door to further probing.

8. Hit Pause. If the referee ever hesitates, wait. People do not like breaks in conversation. Often, if you just wait, you’ll get the most revealing insights.

9. Take notes. Research shows that memories of conversations always are faulty, and are colored by one’s own opinions of the candidate. I always tap along on my computer, taking near-verbatim notes. When I review and type them up, I always see things I forgot were said. Try to take down nearly everything that’s said on your call, so you can later assemble your notes from all the calls to get a more rounded view of your candidate.

Five or six reference checks like this, lasting 45-60 minutes each, and you’re done. Yes, that’s a serious investment of time, but it pales in comparison to the cost of a wrong hire. And, if all works out, you’ll gain excellent insights for on-boarding your newest hire.

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