Reference Checks Required

What is the best part of your job?

A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook, "One of the best parts of my job? Calling successful candidates to make a job offer. One of the worst? Telling unsuccessful candidates they aren't getting it."

My friend conducts a thorough pre-employment screen and she makes good hires. But not everyone is as thorough. Not all hiring managers or HR professionals check references.

I recall an interaction I had with a hiring manager as a young HR professional:

Me: You have to check references.

Hiring Manager: Why? He did great in the interview.

Me: Because, you have to.

Hiring Manager: No, I don't.

Me: Yes, you do. You have to know who you are hiring.

Hiring Manager: I do know who I am hiring. His name is Joe and he's a rock star.

Turns out, the hiring manager did not know Joe like he thought he knew Joe and Joe was more rock than star. Instead of an, "I told you so," as I walked the rock star out the door, the hiring manager received a not-open-for-discussion, "reference checks required."

In hindsight, I would have gotten my point across better with the hiring manager if I had taken the time to teach vs. tell and offered more of my reasoning.

Gilt Groupe's CEO, Kevin Ryan talks about reference checks in his Harvard Business Review article, Building a Team of A Players:

"The hiring process typically has three elements: the resume, the interview and the reference check. Most managers overvalue the resume and interview and undervalue the reference check. References matter most. . . . when someone does not succeed in a job, it's generally not for lack of technical skills - it's because of intangibles that don't come up in an interview. Is he attentive to detail? Does she work well with others? How does he treat his colleagues? References are the only way to learn these things."

You don't spend $1.59 on a dozen eggs without checking each and every egg ('fess up) so how could you hire an employee for your organization without checking him for cracks?

I know, I've griped about reference checks too. I probably griped right after I duck taped the little voice that was telling me, "no," or said something like, "I am self-aware, un-snowable, and great judge of character." And it's backfired on me each and every time.

Guess what? I am not as good a judge of the intangibles as I think I am and neither are you. Reference checks required. And when you check references, check good.

As Ryan says, "It can take real effort to find someone who will be straight with you, but it's worth it."

Making good hires is the best part of any manager's job.

Photo credit iStockphoto

Getting The Job Offer

The job market is tough. There are many candidates for every open position. A fortunate candidate is one that gets an interview; a fortunate hiring manager is one that gets qualified candidates to consider.

You are a candidate. You want a job. I am a hiring manager and I want the best qualified person for the job. Hiring managers have goals, performance measures, and team expectations to achieve and a wish list of knowledge, skill and abilities they are seeking.

The hiring manager's wish list is right before your very eyes. Look at the position description and position posting and most importantly, listen very carefully to the interview questions. For those astute enough to hear them, the questions are filled with clues and opportunities. Do your homework and listen for the hidden question. Let's take a look at two interview questions to show you what I mean:

Why are you interested in this position?

This question is not about the new car you want to buy or how poorly you were treated by your last supervisor or coworkers. Leave those thoughts at the door and focus. This question is about your motivation for this job and an opportunity to show the hiring manager that you did your homework, know what you are applying for and are doing so because you have something to offer. Articulate what you did to prepare for the interview, what you learned about the position that you did not know, and what interests you most about the opportunity. If this is a chance to use your unique set of skills, experiences and expectations or to apply your education to make a difference, look the hiring manager straight on and say so.

Tell me about a time you were responsible for <leading a process change> that would not have happened had you not been there to make it happen. What went well, what did not go so well and what you would do differently next time?

Replace leading a process change with any number of different competences and you have a classic performance based interview question. The question would not be asked if it was not important to success in the position. This question goes to natural tendency, developed skills,and a willingness to learn and grow. Don't be fooled, the question is not so much what you did (although it is important) as it is about the circumstances you did it under. Describe a situation, in detail,that best captures the nature of the position you are interviewing for. If the position requires coordination between other departments, pick an example that reflects your success in coordinating outside of your department, not one that portrays you as in individual contributor.

My advice to you is to research positions thoroughly and take time to listen for the question behind the question. Take what you know about the position to thoughtfully and completely answer the questions asked, highlighting your unique set of knowledge, skills and abilities. 

Does this sound a little much to you? Are you wondering why you should have to do this? Let me guess, you are a candidate who likes working with people and you work well as part of a team. Your weakness is perfectionism. You are organized, a hard worker, a quick learner and the one candidate who wants the job more than anyone else. Sound familiar? Believe me, it does to the interviewer too. Not many candidates prepare in depth for an interview and as a result, candidate after candidate can sound very much the same.

There is a job to be filled and an offer to be extended. Who gets the offer? The offer goes to the one who can distinguish and differentiate herself from the others.

Dazzle me.