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 John filed this post from Las Vegas where he keynoted the opening session for the American Academy of Medical Administrators annual conference and led a career management workshop. 

LAS VEGAS – As clients intensify their focus on finding the best available talent, they are zeroing in on the candidate’s quantitative accomplishments as much as, and in some cases more than, years of experience.  The same can be said for a candidate’s references.  

iStock_000020921224SmallIn the old days candidates could get away with three to five references that would say favorable things about them.  It was the equivalent of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”  The interviewer would ask questions and the reference, who may or may not have had recent knowledge of the candidate’s performance, would typically give positive answers.  I have had more than a few healthcare executives admit that they do not like giving adverse reference reports, even for people they terminated, because they did not want to hurt their career going forward.

In this emerging new healthcare economy, where reducing costs, improving quality, and enhancing safety and patient satisfaction, healthcare executives have little appetite for making a hiring mistake.  The cost is high and the pain is real.

Today, recruiters are intensifying their questioning of a candidate’s references regarding specific performance metrics on which the client’s selection process is based.  Moreover, clients prefer a 360-degree reference profile – interviews with a superior, a peer, a subordinate and another colleague, all with specific knowledge of those issues.  In the first round of reference checks, personal references are irrelevant to the client and should never be included unless there is an extraordinary issue involved.  The personal reference can talk about what a great person you are, how involved in the church, the golf club and your children’s baseball team, but rarely to your performance as a manager or leader or financial expert.  They don’t usually know you in that role.

The goal of the process is to find and hire the right person for the job.  Increasingly, in a decade where healthcare reform and transformation will change the health services landscape, that goal will be more difficult, if not impossible, to achieve without a highly structured recruiting process that measures a candidate’s experience and verifiable record of performance against the specific needs of a client. 

Here are three important tips a candidate should remember: 

  1. Create a larger reference panel of eight to 10 professionals. Having a large panel will allow you to avoid “reference fatigue,” a condition caused by repeated calls from potential employers.  The job market is becoming intensely competitive as health systems and other healthcare organizations layoff workers in an effort to reduce their expenses.  Chances are that most executives in the job market will spend six months to a year searching for a new position.  They probably will go through four, five, or more searches before they are successful.  Unless a candidate has eight to 10 primary references that they can use periodically, “reference fatigue” is a real probability.
  2. Brief your references. Provide your references with “talking points” for each search you use them for.  This is NOT to be mistaken for political talking points where partisan operatives attempt to obfuscate or distort an issue.  Rather, create a document for references to brief them on the position, what the potential employer is looking for, and then highlight your verifiable accomplishments that address the client’s specific needs.  In short, do not assume the reference will remember your specific accomplishments.  Make it easier for them to be the good reference you want them to be.
  3. Be aware of secondary reference checks. Recruiters and employers increasingly go “off list” to verify a candidate’s specific performance.  “Off list” simply means the recruiter or employer, at the appropriate time, may contact colleagues that you have worked with who are not on your “official” reference list.  This type of reference is designed to verify that the “story” holds together.  While most candidates now understand that they can no longer misrepresent degrees or professional credentials on their resumes or during interviews, there are still some candidates, for a variety of reasons, who feel compelled to “enhance” their standing by exaggerating or fabricating accomplishments and accolades.  Recruiters and employers understand that, in the vast majority of cases, a candidate’s references will be positive and offer honest assessments.  But with the stakes for making a hiring mistake rising, employers want to be sure.