Reference-Checking Overkill

Reference-Checking Overkill

Question: The president of my company recently began insisting that recruiters get six or seven reference checks for each candidate. Most people barely provide three people as references, and it sometimes takes days to contact them. We have lost out on fantastic candidates because they accept another offer during our weeklong reference-check process. What can I say to the president to get him to lighten up and just do some hiring?

What the Expert Says: Believe it or not, there can be such a thing as too many references. It's more important to get the right references rather than a number of marginally useful ones. That way, you'll have better information on which to base a hiring decision.

You should check a minimum of three references; select those names with care, making sure that they have worked closely with the candidate and have thorough knowledge of his job responsibilities and performance level. There is a strong preference for supervisors, but subordinates, coworkers and clients can be added to the mix. The number of references may vary depending on the work history and the type of information you need to make a solid decision on the candidate. Covering the past seven to 10 years of a work history is a good guideline, and will allow you to track a candidate's performance and career progression, as well as identify any patterns, recurring problems or issues.

There is validity to the issues you mentioned in terms of time constraints and availability of references. Review your up-front process to make sure you have all the necessary information from your candidates -- the right contact names, best times to call, etc. Put the burden on the candidate to produce the names of people you want to talk to, rather than accepting a list of names and numbers from them and finding out later they are personal references, business and golfing buddies, etc.  

Get three relevant references to start with, and if the information provided is positive, thorough and jives with the application information, work history and what the candidate told you in the interview, you probably have a winner. However, if concerns are raised or red flags appear, you will need additional references to confirm or dispute the issues. Using more references ends up being repetitive, time-consuming and offers nothing new to a reference report.

My recommendation is to come up with a new up-front process to show the president. Let him know that you understand the importance of reference checks and will contact only the most relevant references -- people who have supervised and worked directly with your candidates.

Develop a separate reference information form and include a waiver with it. On the form, request four to five names of work-related references and use three references as your screening criteria. If questions are left unanswered or more info is needed, then go to extra references. Remind your recruiters to be as thorough as possible in the reference interviews -- ask all follow-up questions, don't let anything slide, don't take things at face value, etc. Develop a more in-depth format for references interviews. Tell your president that your recruiters go straight to the sources who know the candidate best and leave no stone unturned in checking references.