References and the process of reference checking are an important part of the recruitment process but employers should be cautious before they place too much emphasis on “the truth” gleaned from these pre-employment interviews, especially from those supplied by the candidate.

reference formCandidates, on the other hand, should take a new approach to reference development and management: strategic referencing.

Let those among us who believe that references will always provide an unbiased and factual assessment of a candidate’s performance, his/her strengths, and weaknesses, raise their hands. It would be nice to believe that if it were only true.

It is a foregone conclusion that candidates almost always provide only those references who will say nice things about them.

In recent years I have seen an increasing number of clients whose skepticism of the value of these reports has risen in relation to their hiring mistakes. While employers expect the reference interviews to be conducted and submitted, they know they offer no guarantees and maybe not even the truth.

Given the cost of a miss-hire, employers are wise to question the validity of this information as well as how much weight these comments should carry in any decision to employ.

Here are several tips for CEOs or their talent acquisition teams:

  • Insist on eight references for all management hires two superiors, two peers, two subordinates, and two other professionals who can validate the claims made on the resume. You can ask for four upfront, but prior to employment, more in-depth reference research should be completed.
  • All offers of employment should be contingent upon the completion of final reference checks and a background investigation.
  • Require recruiters to collect secondary references, those colleagues that a candidate will inevitably mention during the course of an interview. Contact them as well at the appropriate time to seek corroborating information. If recruiters are not providing that additional intelligence, then teach them or get rid of them.
  • You could hire background screening services to conduct a background check for up to 15 years, including document verification, right to work checks, credit history, etc., to identify patterns of behavior. The investigators should check jurisdictions for both the candidate’s place of residence and employment. This is a tightly regulated area of inquiry and recruiters must be aware of state and federal regulations that govern this important research tool. Candidates should not be eliminated solely based on a credit report that reflects the challenges of the Great Recession.

Candidates looking to distinguish themselves in the marketplace should take a new approach to select and manage their references. Treating references as a necessary evil, with the reference selection process almost as an afterthought, is foolish.

Here are some guide points for candidates on strategic reference management:

  1. Candidates should expect to be asked for more than three references. For candidates involved in multiple of searches, they should develop multiple sets of references to avoid reference fatigue that comes from spending 30 or 45 minutes answering a slew of predictable questions.
  2. Selection of references designed to cover up or minimize major career hiccups is not a particularly effective strategy. If you have made a significant mistake that led to termination, if you were a poor cultural fit that resulted in a short tenure, or if you found yourself in a political media buzz saw or a prominent position in Google Search results, and were let go, deal with it in the referencing. If you are able to hide these events and still get the job only later to have the facts become public, you could seriously damage your credibility which could lead to a termination, depending on the fallout. The right approach is to embrace the issue or issues, and carefully recruit references who will speak honestly about the situation.
  3. Assume that all of your warts will come out. Employers, anxious to avoid a costly miss-hire, are placing increasing pressure on recruiters to develop more complete candidate profiles. Get out in front of the issue. As I said in a recent post, be prepared for the questions and recruit reference panels that will help you convince a potential employer you are being honest, that you admit that you are not unlike most other executives, that mistakes were made or that stuff happened, and that you are better leader because you have learned from your mistakes.

Candidates who are too vague or appear to be tap dancing around a career problem only raise yellow flags for recruiters. You do not want to shoot yourself in the foot, but if you appear comfortable and confident in sharing what you think your references will say (because you already know what they will say based on your search preparation) you can minimize or eliminate recruiter anxiety.

Demonstrate that you are thorough; reinforce that you pay attention to details and that you are an honest leader with nothing to hide. This is the best way forward.

2013 John Gregory Self