Too Much Or Reasonable Expectation?

Employer Reference Checks in Interviews

Employer Reference Checks in Interviews

By MarkD

“The biggest mistake was that I didn’t hire all the right people.  I could have done better reference checks.  I should have defined the roles in a much more professional manner.  We hired people who just couldn’t do the job.” – Lillian Vernon

You’re at the home stretch.  You sifted through hundreds of resumes.  You conducted several interviews. Your team is in agreement that this person will be the next great Implementation Consultant for your Acumatica or Sage or NetSuite practice.  But then you remember Toby.  Toby seemed like the perfect hire. Everyone loved Toby in the interview process.   He was so impressive during the process that you hired him and offered him more than he was asking for.  After two months, Toby hadn’t even finished the orientation training.  And you don’t want to make the same mistake.  You wish you heeded the words of Dr. House: “Everybody lies.”  Okay, not everybody, but some people do.  And some job candidates can fool a recruiter, a hiring manager, and other members of your team.  So, on your next hire, determined to avoid another Toby, you decided to call his previous employers to get the scoop.  But before you do, we’ve put together some tips to help you get the most out of your time.  In this blog, we talk about employer reference checks in interviews.

Contacting Previous Employers

There’s a great article on LinkedIn written by Timothy Mably that goes into great detail about the legality of calling previous employers and why job seekers may or may not want you to contact them.  

  • The first thing you’re going to want to do is ask your potential new hire if it’s okay if you contact their previous employers.  There could be many valid reasons why they won’t want you to.  They might still be employed and not want to jeopardize their current work situation.  They might have left because of a toxic work environment.  Their previous employer might be a pathological liar.  It happened to me once.  A previous employer said I was terminated.  Fortunately, the owner of the company called on my behalf and cleared that up.  But not every employee is going to have an owner who knows them and is willing to go to bat for them.

  • Next, you’re going to need to understand that laws vary by state and rules vary by company regarding what information is allowed to be disseminated.  Some places I’ve worked before were only allowed to tell the dates of employment, the rate of pay, and whether or not the employee is rehirable.  In most states, federal law prevails and gives employers the freedom to say anything about a previous employee, so long as it’s honest.

  • Have a game plan.  Your time is valuable.  So is theirs.  At DyNexus Group, we have a four-page guide of questions we use when doing reference checks for our clients.  We don’t use all four pages.  What questions will give you the information you need to make that final decision?  Maybe you’re looking for a Sage Intacct consultant and they have been an Accountant working with Acumatica.  You’ll probably want to ask targeted questions that assure you they can make the transition to a consultant, and pick up the new technology quickly. 

Contacting Provided Employer References Checks in Interviews

There are pros and cons to checking this list of contacts.  No job seeker would, in their right mind, give you the name and contact information of someone if they weren’t 100% sure they were getting a glowing reference.  So why bother calling them at all?  Great question.

  • Reference checks are anticipating your call and are ready to speak with you.  The playbook is wide open and you’ve been given the green light to ask some really thoughtful questions.
  • Again, think about what you’re going to ask before you get on the phone.  These people were hand-picked by the candidate, so you know they want to give positive feedback.  So ask questions that will really let you get to know the candidate better.

According to an article by Checkster, you can get a lot of information by asking, “How well did the candidate communicate or collaborate with the rest of the team?”

A couple other questions we like to ask at DyNexus are:

“What would you say most excites the candidate?”

“What would you say most frustrates the candidate?”

“Can you think of a specific example of a particularly challenging situation, and how they went about overcoming it?”

I have found that the answers to these questions might not put up huge red flags like you’re hoping for, but could definitely help eliminate any yellow ones that might be lingering.

What’s The Point? Employer Reference Checks in Interviews

The biggest thing you’re trying to get out of this part of the process is to do your due diligence to ensure as much as possible that you’re hiring the right person.  Unfortunately, I have a secret you need to know: there is no guarantee.  Someone was just elected to congress who lied about their heritage, the schools they attended, businesses they’ve run, jobs they’ve held, even about the passing of their mother.  Perhaps they wouldn’t have been elected if someone did a reference check.  Now, hopefully you’ll never run into an applicant that has fabricated so much about their past, but it’s not uncommon to find little embellishments here and there.

So what are you trying to get out of a reference check?  It’s really two things. At a very high level, you’re building trust and faith.  Confirming employment, job tenure, reasons for leaving, basic duties performed can really increase the trust factor.  Knowing the applicant is honest goes a long way.

More specifically, understanding how an applicant has worked in the past, how quickly they picked up on things they didn’t know, how they worked with others, how they responded to stressful situations, those are immeasurably valuable and things you can’t always suss out with 2 or 3 interviews.  They might not have the exact skills you’re hoping for, but if several previous employers can convince you that the lack of specific skills isn’t an impediment to this candidate’s success, you might have just found a winner.  So as long as you know what you’re looking for, employer reference checks in interviews can be very helpful.

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