Human Capital Outlook

Perspectives for a Reference Check Process

Recently, a large Indian conglomerate proposing a JV with a global MNC shortlisted a candidate with 28 years of experience for the CEO role. The identified professional has the following credentials- IIT& IIM, eight years in the current company, overall only 3 job changes, all in progressive roles with blue-chip companies.  He is one of those unsung professionals with a wide array of achievements yet not a publicly recognized figure.

The company decides to carry out extensive referencing on the individual with his ex- colleagues, people who’ve worked closely with the candidate in the recent past. (Each one of them seemingly gives a ‘hands down’ positive reference on the candidate) the prospective employer now wishes to talk to a few vendors, auditors, contractors & other external parties. In all, 8 independent references have already been conducted over a period of 3 weeks, the candidate is exasperated to note that the employer does not trust its own & 8 other independent referee’s judgment on the candidate. The word is already out in the market & a business newspaper has already announced in its snippet column of the person joining this company with huge embarrassment to the candidate !

This stage of the hiring process deserves most attention from any prospective employer’s standpoint-there is too much at stake & a bad hire resulting from a poor or negligent reference check process is sure to spell disaster. From the company’s viewpoint, at the senior executive ranks, reference checks is one of the most useful sources of information about a candidate`s past performance, personal & professional traits, behavior/character, credibility, relationship skills, people handling skills, et al.

Reference check can many a times be the only source of information for a given criteria (eg. people handling abilities) & helps in corroborating, clarifying & aiding the decision making process. Several times however, the process itself becomes the over-riding objective than the inference for which it is sought.  Here’s how:

Firstly, the candidate’s perspective is most often than not ignored- question of consent. If the reference check is to be used to assess & gather qualitative inputs from the referees, then candidate consent is required to check references. More so, when independent referees are being spoken to- consent is definitely required. After all, it’s a matter of courtesy to the candidate.

Secondly, at what stage is the reference process being undertaken? The prospective employer may like to have this at the shortlist stage itself when the process is far from being close to the offer stage. This is OK as long as Point 1 is taken care of- the employer directly calling the referees at this stage would make the candidate’s situation embarrassing if in case the hiring doesn`t work out.

Thirdly, how many independent referees should the client call? Should the number be made apparent to the candidate before hand? Generally, it is an accepted practice- only with the candidate`s consent, have a maximum of 4-5 independent reference checks, unless something specific has been inferred from the discussions with the referees which needs further corroboration.

Fourthly, apart from the process checks mentioned above, for a meaningful analysis, one has to clearly gather & use information relative to the skills, performance & behavioral traits in question- in other words, the kind of information to go after are facts, descriptions, relevant incidents and behavioral examples rather than opinions.

Opinions are subjective: referee may have a different definition for the qualification than your own, or may have different criteria on which to evaluate performance than your own. What may be undesirable in the eyes of the referee may be just what you`ve been looking for.

Fifthly, several employers (including their search partners) like to check references in writing! Written reference checks do not permit one to catch the hesitations, the inconsistencies, or the ‘off-the-cuff’ remarks that can be most telling. It is also not possible to ask follow-up questions on the basis of answers to previous questions. It is important here to note & differentiate the reference check process from background screening which is deployed at mid management/entry levels to check the authenticity of qualifications, reliability of employment information provided etc.

Sixthly, it has been observed that several times, clients do not focus at the pattern of evidence but give undue weightage to isolated incidents which are subject to distortion based on individual perceptions. Diagnose unusual hesitations, ambiguous or evasive responses, overtly enthusiastic or vindictive responses & recheck the same with other referees to draw out a pattern if possible. Do not arrive at conclusions immediately.

In the example above, a thorough preparation, planning & meaningful information gathering would have resulted in consistent inferences & the decision, saving much embarrassment to all parties concerned. 

It is interesting to note that a large majority of firms in India have initiated reference check processes for any senior hire, either directly or through their search partners. However, few have any data to conclusively prove rejection or acceptance based on competing criteria’s which were resolved or vindicated through the reference checking process. Such cases only highlight the built-in systemic errors in their reference checking process rather than anything else. Effectively carried out, reference checks bring out critical leadership traits like bold thinking & innovation which are key decision parameters for any top level hiring.