What About The Reference Check?

Background check is another term for this. And yes, I know that many do leave this out of the whole selection process, but there are still enough employers who place such a premium on the reference check, to the extent that they would pin their final selection decision on the outcomes of this step, regardless of the candidate performance through the interview and psychometric.

And I mean, sure, who doesn’t want that last piece of assurance from someone who ‘knows’ the candidate and has seen their work? The background check, done professionally, not only (potentially) helps in identifying the best candidate, but may also help to reduce the risk of workplace fraud.

Fraud? Well, any recruiter can tell you how increasingly creative candidates are with fabricating their qualifications, exaggerating their experience, and concealing or misstating material facts, so yes, a well-constructed background check can help to manage the risk of employing the wrong person.

In fact, increasingly we see more and more employers requiring criminal and credit checks as part of the background check, so it can be very thorough.

You know, given that many aspects of personal information are fluid and change with every new life development and incident, there is even a trend of continuous post-employment screening where employers are able to make highly informed decisions around promotion, re-deployment and general employment retention.  But what we want to really focus on is the reliability of these background checks. The way we tend to do them is, for the most part, as an afterthought.

The quality of the information obtained comes down to the skill of the caller in creating rapport with the referee and extracting information, and that information can either be of the ‘yes, no, I don’t know’ variety or the extended version, depending on who you talk to and how you talk to them, and to be honest, what mood you found them in when you called. 

The typical background check as done locally is a quick phone call to the listed referees, asking them to confirm whether they know the applicant, in what capacity, and what their opinion is of the candidate’s ability to deliver on the role.

Often, the referee supplied by the candidate is a supportive, friendly individual who would say all the right things to impress the employer and help the candidate get the job.

Occasionally the referee is going to be negative and dismissive, maybe even disparaging to the point of obliterating the professional credibility of the candidate.

Realistically, it is difficult to call referees that you as the employer need to talk to – the current employer or supervisor – because that may place the candidate in an awkward position at work.  So it means we have reduced the whole process to an opinion seeking exercise. And that’s fine, but if we are looking for opinions, we have to accept that everyone has a different opinion.

You are going to hear both good, glowing even, as well as shocking and scary opinions. But does that help you as the employer?  The challenge is this. Does the role the candidate played in that environment match exactly what will obtain in your context? How much did the personality dynamics in that environment contribute to the feedback now provided as the reference?

Did that work environment have the sort of support necessary to enable performance, so that if the referee says the candidate under-delivered, we can take the feedback as objective and indicative of the candidate’s capabilities?  What is the quality of the management/leadership that was provided to the candidate, so that if the feedback negatively points to disengagement and attitude problems for instance, we can take that as reliable? This is not to say that an employee can never be justifiably rated as undesirable and counter-productive.

This is not to say that an employee can never be fairly rated as highly exemplary and singularly important to the success of the team. All this is doing, is asking how well constructed is the background check tool being used, is it both valid and reliable, is it objective? Or are we comfortable obtaining subjective feedback that will be used to decide someone’s career move?

Should we rather keep these background checks to the legal minimum of obtaining confirmation of dates of employment, position, and pay scale? Should it really matter to the prospective employer whether the candidate resigned or was fired? Do we think there is still room for background checks, or reference checks? Professionally, I think they will always be relevant.

I think they have a role in the selection process, if they are properly constructed and professionally administered. And I think we need to be able to filter out the unnecessary detail that will inevitably be poured into the process by the referee.

We should be trained to hear what is relevant to our purposes, and filter out what is based on the ‘motives’ of the referee, either way. Happy recruiting.

Editor's Comment
What about employees in private sector?

How can this be achieved when there already is little care about the working conditions of those within the private sector employ?For a long time, private sector employees have been neglected by their employers, not because they cannot do better to care for them, but because they take advantage of government's laxity when it comes to protecting and advocating for public sector employees, giving the cue to employers within the private sector...

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