Reference checks… your past is your future

Here is a valuable career lesson.

Recently I was at the final stages of a recruiting assignment. Slade Partners use a robust recruitment methodology, so I had some outstanding candidates for the client to interview. Shortlisted candidates had been asked to prepare a 20 minute presentation about what they’d bring to the organisation. Two strong presentations from two candidates and the client was impressed with both. He asked me to proceed to reference checks – the final stage before he would make a hiring decision.

The client’s preferred candidate for the role needed only to confirm his suitability with satisfactory references for the job offer to be his. In this case the candidate’s last two roles had been challenging: they hadn’t been great role fits and he had subsequently moved on. He was quite reluctant to provide referees, and really struggled to come up with the names of his direct reports from the previous two employers. This was a red flag for me: A high performing candidate with no suitable recent referees?

Learning One: Inability to provide referees spells danger

Make one bad career choice and learn from it. Two bad choices in a row and it starts to look like you are the problem.

After some prodding from me, the candidate provided the names I needed: two senior people who had directly managed him. Unfortunately, his referees had little positive to say. One in particular was very critical of his performance. When I relayed my findings back to the client, as I am professionally bound to do, it was the end of the journey for that candidate.

Clearly this candidate had not had a perfect career track record; more importantly, he hadn’t learnt about wise choices in matching job fit with true personal capability. When a client is made aware of performance issues in a previous job, naturally questions about suitability arise.

As you can guess, the candidate was unsuccessful and he was naturally disappointed to find out a promising opportunity was no longer within his grasp. When providing this feedback, I counselled him about making wiser choices rather than just jumping into a job for the sake of it.

Learning Two: An unflattering reference may not necessarily cost you the job

Reference checks are not bulletproof predictors of future performance, but it’s never good to have doubts about a candidate in the final stages of the hiring process. The majority of companies use background checks, yet in its General Assessment ROI 2014, Thomas International rates them as having only 9% validity!

Here’s another twist. Even with reference checks that were below par, the client still rated this candidate highly. They liked his background, were impressed with his ideas and could see value in the initiatives he tabled at his presentation. I’ve continued working with him and suggested he undertake some psychometric testing to gauge his work preferences, behavioural and leadership styles – factors that will no doubt contribute to his success with future roles.

Laurie Serafini

Laurie has an extensive business background, having spent over 25 years in sales and marketing. His consultative approach in recruitment is to truly understand each client’s brief; and then apply Slade Executive Recruitment's proven methodology and in-house research department to map the appropriate candidate market. This helps him arrive at a creative ‘people capital’ solution, finding quality talented candidates. Laurie’s background in leisure and elite sport gives him a strong affinity with his chosen sector.

Laurie Serafini
Senior Consultant
Commerce, Entertainment & Sport
Slade Executive Recruitment
Level 7, 15 William Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
Tel: +61 3 9235 5100

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3 comments on “Reference checks… your past is your future
  1. Kerry Cox says:

    Reference checks of current line manager/s absolutely on the money. In 3 universities in which I have worked this has consistently been the weakness in recruiting leading to bad choices, compounded by ineffective use of probation in most cases.

  2. Agree Kerry, the fact that people still get employed without reference checks – or checking in with right referees, not just the given referees.

  3. Agree Kerry. As Laurie’s experience clearly illustrates it is also important to probe during reference checks and not just complete them in a perfunctory manner. It is particularly important to explore any impressions the candidate has made during the interview and probe for contrary evidence where comments are weighted heavily in a particular direction.

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