Monday, September 14, 2009

Reference checking - An art or a science?

Many years ago, (in the late eighties!!) when I first started interviewing candidates as a hiring manager, I was given a mantra by my superior. He said, "Let's try and reject as many as possible." So reject we did, for various reasons. "this resume is a cyclostyled one', 'horrible handwriting(!?)', too many spelling mistakes, gaps in education, gaps in work experience, poor marks.., and so on. And those we couldn't reject-we referred them to our "head of department'-who would then try to reject from the shortlist-and hey presto-if one could not reject any further, we had our 'select'!!

In the old economy, it was the employer who called all the shots-and so -we had the luxury of training people-and wait for them to 'get into the zone' a few quarters later. After all, things moved in slow motion then, no? People worked for their annual increments, stretched for a double increment!! (the pride of being the chosen few ...notwithstanding the amount was a 30 rupees more!!)

Well, fast forward to today's intellectual economy- while interviewing techniques, measurement, assessment centres-have all aided one-I suspect 'reference checking' has been an area that hasn't just kept in sync with the times. Some companies still go through a charade-of background checking-even checking police records-for some authenticity!!

Now as a recruiter, who prides in doing elaborate due diligence, before even recommending a candidate-from among a bunch of others I may have set out validating, it is often frustrating to see some of the corporates not utilising the opportunity to 'probe more' to know the unknown!!

There are a lot of questions that are open to be debated!

Why is it done? A school of thought is that if didn't believe the candidate's claims, then why would you believe some one else's endorsement?

When is it done? Before the decision to make an offer? Or is it to be conducted after the offer is made-and appointment is subject to a good ref check? Or is it done once the person joins?

How is it done?

A few years back, when I was informed that the CFO prospect, recommended by me-was dropped due to a ref check-I was astounded. Here was a person, with an outstanding record, impeccable integrity. Not it was'nt because I had spent hours -after research, wooing -and verifying-felt let down since he was rejected by a third party ref checking agency. Or rather, after the second negative report-based on a report filed with the help of a couple of telephonic calls made to telephone operator/HR person!!

Fortunately, my (client) CEO was open to my request for a review. After all, I clarified-a CFO wasn't on a popularity drive! His job was to strategise what was good for the organisation- A CFO was answerable to his superior-and accountable to the other stakeholders-and it was quite likely that he may have made some unhappy!! I set up telephonic calls with the erstwhile CEO of the company as well as the auditor (a partner in a BIG FOUR firm)-who rated the CFO prospect among the best he had interacted with-and illustrated some cases and decisions made while the company was trying to list at the LSE.

Who would be an ideal referee?

Would one ask the candidate to refer some persons he had worked in the recent past? Or would you seek a reference-without the consent? (After all, how often have referees given negative feedback?

Oh yes, who from the employer's side would do that reference check-if it is a senior management position on the block? Is the company sensitive enough to understand that the 'referee' is probably much senior-and is infact doing a favour, by taking time off busy schedule to add value to a decision concerning someone he could care deeply about?

I would like to believe that reference checks-should be used by the companies strategically to

- unearth specific doubts/concerns that were not entirely addressed by the candidate during the various stages of discussions.

-validate or verify some hypothesis where the individuals' contribution has to be distinctly identified from that of the group

-get a relative assessment of the referee's experience in working closely with the candidate -by seeking open ended questions.

How would one handle a negative reference? Would you share the same with the candidate, and seek his clarifications/version? Whom would you then give the benefit of doubt to ? To the referee or the candidate??

How relevant is the negative reference? It is an accepted practice to avoid checking references from the candidate's present employer. What if the person was a superior -but a few years earlier? What if -indeed the candidate then -had been responsible for having made some awful actions-or there were some ramifications of his poor decision making in the past?

Isn't it possible that the candidate would have since learnt from his/her failures?

And finally-is the information sought -used as a tool to improve the selected hires' productivity ?

I look forward to offline responses..

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