Deciphering Reference Reviews

December 28th, 2012

When it comes to finding your next employee, calling references is still an important part of the hiring process. After all, you don’t want to hire someone who looks good on paper but turns out to have terrible work habits or worse.

But here’s the problem with reference checks: People are so afraid of violating company policy, or of harming a former colleague’s chance of getting a new job, that they tend to give only neutral answers. It’s rare these days to get a glowing review on a job candidate.

In fact, it’s been said, “neutral is the new negative with reference checks.” Because references are playing it so safe, they tend to come across as not having anything good to say about applicants.

So how can you read between the lines to figure out whether a candidate would be a great – or bad – hire?

Most people don’t want to lie, so there are things you can do to help them help you.

Don’t Be Generic

Don’t ask generic questions like, “What can you tell me about this person?” Instead, ask a very straightforward question: “Would you hire this person back?” If the employee was fired or left under other negative circumstances, the reference won’t say, “Yes, we would hire this person back.” So if they say no, there’s a red flag.

Heed the Warning Signs

Follow up on those red flags. If you ask “Why not?” you probably won’t get an honest answer. But you can try something like, “I get the sense that he is overstating his role in your organization. He said he led the team on five important projects last year. Can you confirm or deny this? ”

Details Matter

And be very specific. Rather than asking questions like “Is there anything Nicole could improve on?” ask, “If you had to pick two ways Nicole could improve, what would they be?”

You can also provide options where there’s no “bad” choice and ask the reference to select the choice that sounds most like the candidate. For instance, “Some people thrive in fast-paced environments but might err on the side of losing precision, whereas others are incredibly precise but do better when there’s more time to focus on their work. Which sounds more like Nicole?”

If you’re not good at checking references, have someone else make the calls or hire an outside service to make them. A professional staffing firm knows how to establish a rapport with the reference and ask the right types of questions to draw out the information you need.

The staffing experts at Synerfac know that personality and work history are just as important as skills when you’re looking to hire engineering professionals. We’d be happy to use our expertise to help you find the right candidates, so give us a call any time!

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