I think many of our clients (and the vast majority of employers) really view the reference and background checks as part of their “back-end” process and invest little time performing a detailed reference on a candidate they are ready to engage in the offer stage. It’s sort of “let’s get this out of the way” so we can “check the box” and get the offer to the candidate as quickly as possible.
Let’s face it – getting a new employee to accept the offer quickly to begin the on-boarding process and revise the org chart creates a sense of accomplishment. But hold on. Have you really done justice to the company by not checking out the good, bad and the ugly BEFORE the offer is made? I have never asked a candidate for a list of references that sang out of tune. It’s like listening to the same music in perfect tune every time you dial the next reference. Never out of tune because that’s the way it was scripted. The candidate races to the phone to let each reference know you will be calling and they deliver the script in true Hollywood style…
C’mon – today’s hiring managers are much smarter that that – right?
Because we do retained search, we generally do all reference checking before we present the slate of candidates unless there are extenuating circumstances. And the circumstances better be legit! In most vertical markets, there is no such thing as 6 degrees of separation. In highly specialized fields, one can argue there are only 2 or 3 degrees of separation (MAX) from the candidate to whom we are about to make an offer!
To get better data through reference checking, all you have to do is begin the reference phase a bit earlier than normal, so you don’t slow down the hiring process. With all of the many social networking sites, professional associations and the countless database tools available to most of us – we can afford to dig a little deeper, if we integrate the reference phase of the search process well in advance of the offer stage. Simple questions during the interview can uncover names of previous co-workers without much effort. For example, if we are interviewing a candidate for a VP, Sales position we might ask him or her to tell us the name of the COO at the company they worked at ten years ago.
Continue the interview and mix it up a bit – ask for the names of the CFO, CTO, VP Marketing at another company. Check them out and by all means – CALL THEM PLEASE!!! You can likely find them via a quick Google or LinkedIn search or in one of the trade associations in the vertical markets you serve. Whatever you do – DO NOT…let me repeat…DO NOT rely solely on the references you get from the candidate. In our firm, we always dig for major accomplishments AND we also want to know what went wrong. Every candidate has a blemish in their career, and it’s not that we just want to find out about the warts. We just feel that by presenting ONLY “the good” that we are doing an injustice to our client. Trust me – we want to get the offer and acceptance just as much as the other stakeholders. BUT… not at the expense of finding out bad news later on. Remember…Bad news early is “good news”. Bad news late… is “really bad news”.
I like the reference process very much as a search executive, as it gives me an open dialog with CEO’s, President’s and many other key executives who are generally hard to get to. So the next time you get a list of references from your star candidate…just smile and grab your shovel. It’s time to roll up your sleeves and dig a bit deeper! You’ll be glad you did.
Tim Tolan is a partner at Sanford Rose Associates and specializes in Executive Search in Healthcare IT. He’s a closer, and you really don’t want to call him unless you’re ready to bring out the bazooka to bag some big game. When I started Fistful, I checked four references on Tim – his wife, his kids, his pastor and a client. The references were great, even if it sounded like they were reading from a sheet of paper. I just chalked that up to them being “detail oriented” in their feedback….