Recruitment 101: Always Check References

Recruitment 101: always check references

Article by Bruce Cotterill, September 2019. Bruce is a company director and advisor to business leaders.

At EQ Consultants, recruitment is a large part of our portfolio. We assist clients to find people with not only the right work skills and experience, but someone who is also a superb cultural fit into the organisation.

A large part of our recruitment is reference checking. Aligning questions to the position description to avoid the ‘cookie cutter’ approach is an important first step. Then, if a personality profile has been done, using this to structure questions to probe into any areas of concern is ideal. That way, when we are talking to referees, we’re addressing the candidate’s specific traits and how these have impacted their success – or lack of – in past roles.

The following article by Bruce Cotterill highlights this well:

‘During the last few months, I have had the opportunity to observe, from close quarters, the behaviour and performance of a recently appointed chief executive who is leading a public company. For the purposes of this article, I'll call him Peter.

The person has been around his industry for a long time and is well known. That longevity is reflected in someone who is stuck in their ways, seems to think he knows better than everyone else, and is rather out of date in his treatment of people and customers.

Most of us would expect to see a new chief executive walk into an organisation and immediately seek out his people, preferably at all levels, introduce themself, and get on with the job of listening to what they had to say. What struck me about Peter is he has sought to do the opposite.

He has run around 'like a chook with its head cut off' and started doing things, usually without reference to the people who know what does and doesn't need to be done. He is clearly not a planner. More like a 'reactionary'.

He has initiatives underway in everything from IT to HR, all of which are performing poorly and already stalling. He has a liking for preceding every personnel interaction with something like the following: "As you know, I'm the chief executive and so it's my responsibility to ...". I'm sure you get the idea.

To make matters worse, his attitude to managing people is like something from the 1980s. He shows little respect for anyone, even his more senior colleagues. In a meeting situation he will raise his voice, and he even resorts to the 'F-Bomb' in moments of purple-veined rage when not immediately getting his way.

Before meeting Peter, I decided to do a bit of fact checking. Three phone calls were all it took to build a profile of someone who shouldn't be a chief executive in 2019.

My unofficial checks revealed a character who, at their last job was nicknamed 'Peter who' by his people, because no one ever saw him. One former worker said he met him for the first time after he'd been there for nine years. At the time one of his colleagues asked who the guy was. Keep in mind, this was a company with less than 250 staff.

My brief research indicated a guy who started lots of things but never finished any of them. A person who shouted at people regularly. One of my referees even used the word 'narcissist'.

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Since then, I have met Peter on a couple of occasions, and it turns out that my referees appear to be very accurate.

I would add one more thing. Peter has such a lack of self-awareness, that if he's reading this article, he will not for one minute imagine it is about him.

The thing that staggers me the most is this. If any of Peter's new board of directors had made a few simple phone calls, as I did, I'm confident they would have received a similar story. That means one of two things; either they didn't bother to reference check at all, or they decided to appoint him anyway.

Reference checking is "recruitment 101" as far as I'm concerned. And it has never been easier to make your own enquiries about a potential recruit. By all means check in with the referees nominated by the job applicant. However, these people are often 'captive' and not quite as independent as we might like. 

But with resources like LinkedIn, and to a lesser extent Facebook, there is plenty of information about people to access before making the decision to hire them. And if you've been around a while, chances are you will know someone who has been close to your potential recruit in a previous role. So look for those opportunities to find out all you can.

Of course, today's leaders and managers need to be aspirational for their company, and they need to be strategists, planners, communicators and delegators. That hasn't changed much. But they also need to demonstrate a high level of care for their people and customers, be highly sensitive to a rapidly changing environment that is wrestling with the demands of the diversity movement, and the challenges of harassment in the workplace. And most of all, leaders and managers need to be prepared to 'wander around' their organisations and listen to people, more than ever before.

When recruiting leaders and managers, today's employers need to look for these capabilities in the people they are seeking to employ, on top of all the other skills and disciplines required. If you are employing growing numbers of millennials, and who isn't, you need to double up on the communication, caring and engaging stuff.

But you can't find that out, if you don't check references. My guess is that Peter's employers have the wrong guy. In part, it will depend on the standards they expect and only time will tell. But if I am right, then three simple phone calls might have saved them some cost and embarrassment. They will only have themselves to blame.’

As an organisation, EQ Consultants will always factor reference checks into the recruitment process. We are well experienced in speaking to referees and extracting information vital to the role that the candidate is applying for. For further information, please contact us and we will be happy to talk this through with you.

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