“Jim is a star employee! Jim is a great worker! Jim was an asset to our team!”

Have you heard these types of accolades from the mouth of a candidate’s reference? Of course you have! After all, why would a pre-determined reference say anything but great things about the candidate?

As employers, we’ve created a situation where we force the candidate to prep their references on what to say when they get the call, going so far as coaching them on exactly how to respond to typical questions and drastically skewing the value of having the reference at all.

We need to take a serious look at the perceived importance we place on traditional references and whether they are truly benefiting our hiring practices.

The typical recruiting process has a tendency to be practiced out of order. Professional relationship establishment and the ensuing interview steps should be the time and place to assess the fit of a candidate and gain a true understanding of their skills, competencies, attitude, and cultural fit. Potential issues should be uncovered and addressed during these candidate background checks and screenings – not during reference calls. Instead, we rely heavily on these calls to find out “secrets” about a candidate’s true nature.

If we would just realize that no perfect candidate exists and that both positive and negative references can help us figure out what we need to do to help the candidate succeed, we would be much better off.

When speaking with provided references, I skip the questions about whether the candidate is a hard worker because I know what they are going to say. Instead, I try to always ask one question to candidate references: What do we need to be aware of to ensure that we create an environment that will help the candidate succeed?

Odds are that by the time you are calling references the candidate is pretty far along, if not in the final stages, of the interview process – or at least they should be. If the candidate has flaws (and they all do) these should have been already uncovered through the recruitment process.  At this point in the process you should be figuring out how to help the candidate develop in the areas they may be lacking in – not just knocking them out!

Another approach I use during these calls is to practice behavioral based interviewing techniques with the reference. Ask about a time that the candidate displayed leadership on a difficult task/project and let the question hang, allowing the reference to rack their brain and think about individual instances in which the candidate was able to shine. This type of question will uncover what kinds of working conditions are optimal for the candidate, with less of the focus on their quantifiable accomplishments.

But what about LinkedIn references and recommendations? I recently spoke with Roy Maurer with SHRM about their perceived importance.

Is there any value in these directly solicited comments that often sound like they are written by the candidate themselves? LinkedIn approaches endorsements by suggesting those by keyword that show up in a contact’s profile. All of us have blindly endorsed candidates by clicking a button since we were connected to them or they are a personal friend without even knowing if they have the skill we endorsed them for. Obviously, there is little to no value to endorsements on LinkedIn.

Recommendations on LinkedIn are hit or miss. If a candidate provides me with a reference that is not on LinkedIn, I may reach out to the person on LinkedIn directly to see if anything has changed. Most often, however, I use the LinkedIn reference as a way to build my own database of future potential candidates in a function or industry – rarely using the LinkedIn reference provided reference as a point of data in the decision making process on the candidate.

In the midst of today’s talent shortage, we don’t have the time or resources to misunderstand a candidate and whether they would be a good fit. Too often in recruiting and HR we do things just because it’s the way it’s always been done – let’s stop being afraid of change for the better and turn the tables on how we perceive the reference process!!


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