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Does Your Utility Really Need to Check References of Job Candidates?

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The answer to the question in the headline is “yes,” but you need to take recommendations with a grain of salt and ask difficult questions about the job candidate to the reference.

Earlier this year, I hired an employee who lasted just four months. Her resume was great, as was her experience – and the references unanimously recommended her.

And that’s part of the problem: How useful are references? Since job candidates will choose people they know will say favorable things, what’s the value in that?

First and foremost, remember that references are only one piece of the puzzle. The resume, personal interview, samples of prior work (if applicable) and a gut feeling should all come into play before you even consider the references.

Then there are the ways to improve the usefulness of references.

Be specific in the references you want (it’s also a good way to see if a candidate can follow directions). Prohibit relatives from being references, as well as people who have never worked with the candidate and even people who may have worked with the person more than 10 years ago.

When you check the references, ask more than just perfunctory questions — don’t assume any materials submitted by the candidate are accurate. Put the reference on the hot seat a bit.

You’ll want to know the relationship between the job candidate and the reference. A direct supervisor would likely have better insights than a coworker, although the coworker might be able to discuss how well the candidate worked with others.

Ask about the candidate’s strengths, but spend more time talking about their weaknesses. You may hear something along the lines of “there weren’t any weaknesses,” so you’ll need to push back. Everyone has areas in which they can improve.

Ask why the candidate left the job. Also ask how they fit into the corporate culture (and try to get a feel for the prior employer’s culture).

Inquire as to whether they’d rehire the candidate, which is a telling question.

Check into the candidate’s listening skills and their ability to communicate. Even the best worker can be hindered if they can’t explain to others what they’re doing.

And be sure to ask the reference for the names of other people who could talk about the candidate. Because those people won’t be references, you might get a better, less filtered response.

All this should help your utility get better insight into would-be hires, but remember that it’s no guarantee of success — my recent employee being the perfect example.

Andy Gotlieb's picture

Thank Andy for the Post!

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