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Using reference checks as a selection tool

Survey finds references are used to screen out one-third of candidates
A recent survey of Canadian senior managers found respondents rejected about 32 per cent of candidates from consideration for positions as a result of reference checks. Shutterstock

By Brian Kreissl

According to a recent survey of Canadian senior managers conducted by Accountemps, participants rejected about 32 per cent of candidates from consideration for positions as a result of reference checks. That’s quite a high percentage of candidates who didn’t make the cut.

While this means reference and background checks likely have some utility as selection tools and can be used to help narrow the candidate pool, it is important not to throw away the baby with the bathwater when checking references. For example, recruiters and hiring managers need to avoid rejecting candidates for discriminatory reasons under the applicable human rights legislation.

I would also argue that employers should avoid being overly picky in rejecting candidates for spurious reasons or anything amounting to factors that have little to no relevance to the job. With the tighter job market these days, employers shouldn’t be making it more difficult to find the talent they need.

Nevertheless, that’s not to say references cannot be used to distinguish viable candidates from an even better one. The fact is there is often more than one viable candidate for a job, although some candidates are a better fit than others.

I previously blogged about the effectiveness of reference checks as a selection tool. One of the points I made in that post was that recruiters and hiring managers often need to take references with a grain of salt.

Candidates tend to include only referees who are likely to provide a positive reference, and referees are generally reluctant to provide any really negative information that could jeopardize the candidate’s future career.

Having said that, when checking references, it is important to ask probing questions, try to find some information on some of the candidate’s shortcomings and ask the referee if she would rehire the candidate.

Conditional offers contingent on reference checks

While it tends to take away some of the efficacy of reference and background checks as selection tools, I prefer to use reference checks as the last step in the process before extending an unconditional offer to a candidate. The idea is to make the original offer to the candidate conditional upon the receipt of satisfactory reference and background checks.

There are several advantages to this approach including less work and lower costs associated with checking fewer references, less likelihood of jeopardizing a candidate’s current employment and less disruption for potential referees. While more employers are starting to ask for references right upfront, the truth is very few of those references are actually checked by the recruiter, hiring manager or third-party provider.

This can cause disruption and confusion when a candidate prepares her referees to be contacted, only to find that the call never comes. This can be somewhat awkward and tends to lead referees to believe the candidate was either overhyping the opportunity or the individual wasn’t a good fit for the role.

Online and telephone reference checks

Another trend I have seen in recent years is the use of online reference checks through outsourced providers. While such tools have advantages such as consistency, a reduced workload for those checking references, less disruption for referees and more time to formulate an appropriate response, there is much less opportunity to ask probing or additional questions or assess a referee’s tone of voice or demeanour.

I personally prefer the opportunity to talk to a real live person when conducting reference checks. Nevertheless, it is important to be respectful of the referee’s time and schedule a conversation at a mutually agreeable time.

Those checking references must also be mindful of best practices and legalities surrounding reference checks. For one thing, it is important to obtain signed written consent from the candidate before checking references.

Best practices for candidates in providing references

While referees should be careful in the type of information provided and ensure it is fair, factual, without malice and based on reasonably held beliefs, candidates also have a role to play in the reference check process. They need to ensure referees’ contact information is correct and updated, ask permission to use the individuals as referees and thank them afterwards.

They should also be careful about whom they provide as referees. Determining what an individual is likely to say about you in a reference check is tricky and requires a certain amount of self-awareness.

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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