June 6, 2023

Inconvenient Truths About Reference Checks


Episode Highlights

Reference Checks Should NOT Be Used for Hiring Decisions


Why Backdoor Reference Checks are Absolute Garbage


Are You Trying To Find Something Wrong With People?


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#tbt to 2021 and Episode 28 “Reference Checks Are Stupid”

Sadly, our first rant on this topic didn’t change the world. Reference checks have come back in a big way.

Our title was a bit facetious that time. Reference checks are not inherently stupid. But they’re commonly misused by damn near everyone.

So we’re giving it another crack: What drives companies to use them? What true value can you get out of them? And where do they fall short?

Jeff Smith and James Hornick answer these questions with the commentary you’ve come to expect in The 10 Minute Talent Rant, Episode 67 “Inconvenient Truths About Reference Checks”

Episode Transcript

The 10 Minute Talent Rant is live. I’m James Hornick joined by Jeff Smith and we are on the clock. The 10 Minute Talent Rant is our ongoing series where we breakdown things that are broken in the talent acquisition and hiring space, maybe even pitch a solution or two. I don’t think we really have any today.

Before we dig in, all of our content can be found on talentinsights.hirewell.com. This week’s topic: “The Inconvenient Truths About Reference Checks” our first retread. Are you excited? I don’t even think that we would have to call it out. Like we’re just trying to keep ourselves honest.

But this is- yeah. The first time we’ve ever kind of doubled down on the top. Yeah. I think it was 18 months ago and it wasn’t even something we were planning on doing. It’s like I didn’t think it would be the hot button issue that would get us there, but why are we talking about reference checks again, Jeff?

Well, they’re back in a big way. Anobody who has an affinity for pulp fiction, do with what you will, with that comment. That’ll go over with about two of our audience. Look with a tighter market comes more careful, more precise hiring. That’s normal.

There’s more due diligence. I mean, we are seeing just, we’re seeing more requests for reference checks. Mm-hmm. And more detailed checks. Like, “Tell me about your template” these sorts of things that we’re usually able to just use our template, send it over. But things have gotten super detailed and that’s a complete 180 from 2021, early 22, like complete pants on fire hiring spree.

So I think both of us agree, like the hill Hirewell dies on is and continues to be that the nature of these conversations is still misunderstood. So food for thought on this, they 100% should not be for the actual hiring decisions. They are NOT for the hiring decisions. So think of- you have to think about these things as tools for training and development insights for the person you are deciding to hire.

So what would this person do to succeed? What management styles would work? What resources would be useful? These are the things to glean. Yeah. You’re taking a like combined 6, 7, 8 hours to work through figuring out if this person is a good team member. Those are the things that should inform your hiring decision.

Yeah. And if that can all be undone with a 15 minute conversation with not the candidate, with some other person, like you’re doing something really, really wrong with your talent evaluation in the first place. Right. I think that the entire nature of checks is to ensure like this gaining insights now how they work, how they communicate, what you can do to make them more effective in the role that you’ve already decided they want to join in.

If they are who they say they are, that’s what background checks are for. That’s what employment verification’s for. If they’re right for your environment for this job, that’s your job as an interviewer. That’s neither those things are really a job of a reference check. Yeah. And I think here’s an interesting counterpoint, a thing to remember:

great candidates can work in any environment, including crappy environments. Yeah. Right? Mm-hmm. This is a big huge point. They can still function in places that probably aren’t even close to a good match because they’re good. Yeah, they’re nimble. They can pivot. So once upon a time, you’re out there listening to stories that jobs suck and you get through like the conversation, it’s like, “All right, the place just like wasn’t the right fit.” And then the person found a role that was like the perfect fit and it’s like, oh my gosh, they crushed it, right. So the question then remains still with these reference checks, is what would the manager ultimately say about you in those particular scenarios?

Yeah. The crappy environment where nothing went right no matter who was in the role there. They probably don’t have like amazing things to say about anybody in the first place, and we’ve all had a job like that before. Anyways. Yeah. That’s also why I say these can’t be used as the basis of hiring decisions.

Like you just, you’ll never know the group dynamics. You’ll never know what the business climate was at those moments in time, how they’ll play in the success and failure of someone as an individual, you know, just based on what some total stranger is going to say and tell you. Yeah. And another good point, brings up something I was just thinking about.

There’s always this preference for the most recent supervisor. Why? Yeah. Why? If this person was in an environment that wasn’t a good fit, probably likely why they’re looking for a new job in the first place. That reference, more than likely or almost assuredly, is probably not a good reference.

But ultimately it’s usually the one that’s mandatory. Yeah. Bizarre world when you think about it. Yeah. Let’s stir the pot a bit. Stir it. Let’s stir the pot even further. Backdoor reference checks- the most problematic thing that we’ll never get rid of. We are stuck with these things no matter what. Until I’m blue in the face

I could write a list of reasons why they’re absolute garbage. You probably agree with most of these reasons, but you’d still do them. Yeah. I mean it’s just, it’s human nature when we know people or we think we know people that they’re going to give us like we have an- everyone wants an inside angle on things

and someone who’s going to tell us something. But I guess the two things to remember, one, when it comes to back, and backdoor reference checks, if you’re not familiar, is just talking to somebody at someone’s company without their knowledge. It might be someone you know, might be someone who’s a connection, whatever.

But the two things to remember, one: outing someone in their job search is probably the sleaziest and cruelest thing you can possibly do in this whole process. So just by nature of going behind someone’s back to ask them at their current company “Hey, are they any good?” like it’s going to get out that they’re looking for a job.

Two: what I a lot of times hear is, “Yeah but this is- I’m really tight with this person, you know?” Okay. Yeah. I have a lot of friends who were idiots, right? And I know we all think like hey, I got a buddy or I know a guy, but they don’t know everything. Like I have plenty of friends that would give bad advice or I recognize like in certain situations are not the people who’d be the expert on certain things.

So just by nature of having a connection or knowing someone there doesn’t mean you’re still getting a good answer. And you should think we know enough about human nature now to realize that. Yeah. It’s the most unethical thing you can do. Everyone’s like, “Oh, I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean to…”. What did you- what do you think is going to happen?

Yeah. Oh yeah, they’re not going to go and immediately call that person out, you know? Especially if the gossip man gets- it’s ridiculous. Because human beings are so good at keeping secrets. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, another huge issue outside of the morality of it all is, these conversations just simply go off plot very quickly.

So you can be in these calls digging into something and something so minute and small just kind of all of a sudden turns into the spotlight of the conversation and it all just kind of comes back to what is the utility of the call? Are you literally trying to find something wrong? Yeah. Or are you using the discussion to ensure you’re capturing like the right information that will ultimately make your new hire successful, right?

Mm-hmm. So the bottom line is someone who spends all of that time interviewing, like you said before, can have all of this thrown away in a 15 to 20 minute, completely subjective conversation. And the question still remains, who do you trust more, the individual that you spend all of that time with?

And everyone unanimously said, “Wow, this would be a great fit.” or the rando you had a 10 minute conversation with? Yeah. And that’s, I guess that’s the thing too is like half the time you don’t know, and some people will say, “Well, I only do this when I know someone, like they’re like my best friend or whatever.”

But how many of those people do you actually have? How many people in the world do you know implicitly that you trust to give you the real story and will keep their mouths shut and not have any blowback? Five? I mean, it’s small. Anyone who says it’s more than- anyone who says it’s more than 10 is lying.

Yeah. It’s just like how many times does that really become applicable in those kind of situations? I just don’t think it’s a real, like a relevant number in terms of something that can be repeatable, which kind of brings back to like how much credence can get on these people? If it’s a friend of a friend or a contact, what if they could be a complete sociopath and

you don’t even know, you know? Just because you have a connection that knew someone there. So anyways. We had a real world example of one that went bad. We had someone recently, thankfully, it wasn’t with our client. But we had one of our recruiters had a candidate interviewing elsewhere, had a backdoor reference, blew back, put them in a bad spot with their current employer just because whoever it was that did the reference gabbed about it right away because you know. Anyways. So yeah, it’s real. I think it’s a terrible thing. Yeah. That person walks into that job at a complete disadvantage through no fault of their own. Yeah. It’s crap. So if your offer is going to be contingent on reference checks or background checks or drug tests, say it…

out loud, like earlyish in the conversation. So if you don’t implicitly say this stuff upfront, job seekers are going to do potentially things like give notice before you do any of this. And then when you bring it up, they have a complete panic attack because they now think, they now know, that the offer isn’t final and they have to scurry and make sure that they’re telling all of their references

like please don’t say anything bad, don’t say anything about weaknesses, and you know you’re not going to get anything out of that conversation anyway. Yeah. And a quick note, laws change state by state. I’m not going to pretend to be like a lawyer or legal expert, but generally it’s illegal to run background employment checks before an offer is actually given, unless the candidate gives consent, which they’re going to be like, “Why are you running this on me?” whatever. Yeah. People just aren’t going to assume you’re running them. So again, or reference checks. We did have, this is another, we did have a situation like this recently. One of our colleagues had a candidate go an absolute meltdown because they had a reference call happen after they had an offer, already put in their notice.

It worked out okay. But they had a week of an absolute panic attack thinking I just quit my job and I might be out on my ass because I just don’t know how this is going to shake out. So anyway. Yeah. So I mean, we both heard it. This is by and large- and not an HR dunk by the way, but we talk to HR folks about this and they just basically say reference checks are completing the file and you know, checking a box. Like

what? Yeah. That’s an employment verification. It’s literally, “Did this person work from date to date? If the answer is yes, great. Check mark done.” like we’re going to go back to the very beginning. These things are only useful if the insights are allowing you to help your new team member flourish in their new job.

That’s it. That’s all you should be focused on. All right, takeaways. What was the name of our previous show on this? ” Reference checks are garbage”. Sticking with that. Still the takeaway. Yeah. We are short on Clock. That’s a wrap for this week. Thanks for tuning into the 10 Minute Talent Rant, part of the Talent Insights series which is always available for replay on talentinsights.hirewell.com as well as YouTube, Apple Podcast, Google Podcast, Spotify and Amazon.

Jeff, thanks again as always. Everyone out there, we will see you soon.

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