Can I get a reference? (Guest commentary)

Check background, but use additional selection tools

You’ve followed the pre-defined recruitment process for your organization — job analysis, job posting, interviewing and testing — and now you’re ready for the gold-medal round, also known as the telephone reference check.

This lengthy and detailed step will, you hope, confirm all the information you have gleaned thus far about your short-listed applicant is correct. Or perhaps it will clearly illustrate why he should not be hired.

You contact the applicant’s current or former supervisor and find she will not speak to you about the employee, instead shooing you over to HR for what turns out to be a perfunctory conversation. HR confirms the employee has worked there for a specific period of time, his job title and duties and not much more. Suddenly the centrepiece of the selection process is derailed and you are left wondering what your next steps will be.

Companies are increasingly reluctant to provide anything other than limited information about an employee in a reference check and, in some cases, will not provide any information at all.

In most instances, there is no legal obligation to provide references for a former employee. Yet many organizations rely on the telephone reference check as the final, and most important, step in the selection process.

An HR manager may be in the interesting position of declining to give an elaborate reference for an employee who intends to leave her organization, yet demand one for a person she wishes to hire. Applicants may find themselves to be essentially unemployable, as they discover they can’t be hired without a satisfactory reference from their former employer.

Why are employers reluctant to give detailed references?

Employers express concern on a number of fronts. In the age of privacy legislation, such as the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), employers can be reluctant to divulge any information that could expose them to action under privacy statutes.

As well, any negative evaluations of employees could potentially land an employer in legal trouble unless the employer could prove the truth of the allegations.

Finally, it is a time-consuming and difficult process. Hiring organizations and reference-checking agencies use increasingly complex models for information collection, resulting in reference checks done at a level exceeding what is required for most jobs.

How reliable are references?

Reference checks (and the more comprehensive background checks) may be critical in recruitment for some positions, particularly where issues of protection of persons or property are involved — such as medical staff, police officers, child-care workers and airline pilots. They are also useful in demonstrating that the HR manager has exercised due diligence in attempting to limit the organization’s exposure to liability.

However, it is also clear their validity as a selection tool for many positions is limited. Prone to subjectivity and bias, opinion rather than direct observation, reference checks are valid only in combination with other selection tools.

As well, there are structural problems with the process that can increase the possibility of subjectivity:

• Questions in reference checks, such as “How do you think Mandeep would perform in a high-volume, stressful environment?” may ask an employer to make an assumption about performance that is not necessarily based on observation.

• The performance of many employees could be described as ordinary and some operate consistently below expected levels of performance. Yet so few references come back negative. Employers can be reluctant to give negative information about employee performance, even if it is accurate.

• Likeability is not necessarily an indicator of high performance. If answered negatively, the oft-asked question “Would you hire her again?” could cause potentially stellar employees to be excluded from positions for which they were highly qualified, because their personality or approach was negatively perceived by their boss, perhaps unfairly.

Where do we go from here?

The traditional purpose of a reference check is simply to confirm the accuracy of information an employee gave during the selection process. Over time, we have expanded the scope and our expectations of that process considerably.

As a result, we should give up our desire to glean every possible piece of information from references to help us to make a reasoned decision about each hire. We should develop new strategies in the selection process that rely more heavily on the quality and validity of other selection tools such as testing and interviewing.

This could require in-depth training for HR professionals in understanding the effectiveness of recruitment tools and the ability to develop recruitment processes that satisfy both legal and moral obligations.

Lynne Van Buskirk is contract faculty in the School of Administrative Studies at York University in Toronto. She can be reached at (416) 736-2100 ext. 22465 or [email protected].

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