Making Reference Checks Count

We all know how hard it is to get any really meaningful information out of a reference check.  Usually the information boils down to the dates of employment and many companies will not even disclose the position held.  Actually, such a system probably does work in the best interest of all three parties in the majority of cases.  At best, we are looking at a 50/50 probability of getting good, objective and reliable information.

Usually the references are checked by a personnel assistant who is going to get the information from a personnel clerk working for the previous employer.  The personnel clerk is then going to get her information out of a computer or personnel file.  Usually the party giving the information has no direct personal knowledge of the past employee's performance or behavioral problems.  The limitations of such a system are quite obvious.

Reference checks at the higher level

I would like for you to now take a closer look at references when all conditions are optimal.  The case where a CEO gets personally involved and the references are checked at a much higher level.  CEO's generally have a large number of contacts and resources that they can turn to for information when they need it.  In cases of reference checks, they will frequently have high level contacts that will freely provide them with the unbiased information that they are seeking.

Since both parties generally have a certain level of mutual respect and trust in each other, we could easily assume that references obtain under these circumstances are the most valid and reliable references that are possible.  I believe that you will easily agree with this conclusion and would therefore like for you to look at the value of these references in a little closer detail.

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We hear what we want to hear

Most hiring decisions are actually made at a subconscious level very shortly after meeting the applicant and everything that is done in the interview process is generally spent trying to confirm and validate the pending decision to hire the candidate.  We simply ask the questions that will provide the answers that we want to hear.  This all occurs on the subconscious level.  The truth is that we generally utilize this same technique when we check references.  In a court of law, the process would be called leading the witness and would result in immediate objections from the opposing counsel.

One of my clients was in the market to hire a very high caliber sales manager for his company.  He had one candidate that he interviewed that he was very impressed with.  The candidate had very good credentials with some very large companies.  The CEO was able to able to call some of his friends at the companies that had previously employed the candidate.  The references obtained were impeccable.  The pre-employment assessment report indicated that the candidate was not a good fit for the CEO's company.  I recommended that he keep on interviewing, but due to the fact that the candidate had such a good resume and impeccable references, the CEO hired the candidate.  It proved to be his worst hiring decision ever and a very costly one at that.

When that same CEO started his new search for another sales manager, he wanted to be sure that he did not repeat his same mistake.  He found another prime candidate and started to gather references from more of his very reliable contacts and personal friends.  It appeared that he had another winner.  The references were great.   Once again the assessment report indicated some severe problems and I recommended that he proceed with his search.  He told me that felt like he was caught in a dilemma.  He trusted his judgment and the judgment of those that he obtained the references from, but he also had a lot of faith in the assessment report.

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Leading the witness

He was afraid that either way he decided, he might make a mistake.  I posed the possibly that maybe he had simply asked the wrong questions and gotten the wrong answers.   I asked him to approach the situation with a bit more objectivity.  I advised him to call the sources from which he had obtained the references and tell them that he had come across some relatively disturbing information about his candidate.  "Tell them about the areas of concern that you now have and ask your contacts if they could either confirm or deny those behavioral tendencies that concern you the most," I suggested.  He called the same references that he had previously called.  Bingo!  The information contained in the assessment report was confirmed.  The CEO was astounded by the contrasting difference in the results of the two reference checks made by contacting the same individuals.  He realized that he had been guilty of leading the witness.

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We project what we perceive

Another very valuable point is that positive minded people simply do not dwell on the negatives.  Successful people are usually positive minded.  They will immediately recall positive past experiences and easily remember the good times.  You will rarely hear a lot of negative thoughts coming from the higher levels of a successful organization.  If you mention a name to a positive minded individual, he will immediately focus on the positive memories of that individual, provided that the individual did not directly cause harm to him in some way.

A good person with a positive attitude sees mainly the good in other people just as the negative person sees the negative or bad.  A good assessment does not see an individual as good or bad, it merely indicates whether the individual is a "good fit" or a "mismatch" for the available position within a company.

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The best laid plans of mice and men…

I met recently with a CEO who wanted to discuss some changes that he was planning to make with some of the people in his organization.  He had made some very good decisions and there was only one problem that he wanted to discuss and that involved one of his managers.  He was disappointed in her performance and was convinced that he had made a hiring mistake.  He wanted to make sure that he did not make the same mistake a second time.

We then reviewed the evaluation report together.  All of the behavioral problems that were being reflected in the manager's job performance were clearly indicated in the pre-employment assessment report.  He told me that he normally would not have hired the individual based on the report, but since the person was highly recommended by another CEO, he took the evaluation information with a "grain of salt" and placed too much emphasis on the personal reference.  He understood where the process went astray.

He had dinner that evening with the CEO that had recommended the manager to him.  During the course of the meal, the CEO that had recommended the manager inquired as to how she was doing regarding her job performance.  The CEO that had hired the manager stated, "Just the way that you asked that question tells me that you knew before you recommended her that I would probably have a problem.  Well, I do have a problem and I would very much like to know why you recommended her.  We are friends, aren’t we?"  "Well, I was hoping that things would work out differently for her at your company, she is a very good person," came the sheepish reply.

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Use the evaluation report as a hiring tool

I do not want to suggest that you should place all of the weight of the hiring decision on the assessment results.  The assessment report should be regarded as an objective tool that may raise a few red flags about the candidate that you are considering.  You should try to resolve any differences between the assessment evaluation and your own personal evaluation of the applicant.  Reference checks and previous employment history should also be considered.  Assessment results are rarely 100% accurate but they are usually much more accurate and objective than the standard interview process.  The best approach is to objectively utilize and merge all of the information obtained before making the decision to hire.


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