With a labor market in flux, especially in hard-to-hire industries, it might be tempting to chuck asking for references out the window. But for most recruiters, especially those who seek out managerial and executive candidates, they’re still a necessity — even if most references are going to sing the praises of the candidate.
HR Dive spoke to Kristen Fowler, vice president and practice lead at Clarke Caniff Strategic Search, about her experience with references, and best practices for when and how to check them in the current recruiting environment.
1. Ask later in the process
Don’t talk to references right out of the gate, Fowler advises. Instead, she tends to wait until later into the hiring process to contact references. That way, no one’s time is being wasted if a candidate isn’t right for the role. “We don’t want to be bothering references when an individual won’t be a good fit anyway,” she said. Instead, wait until the “point in the process where you feel confident that this is an individual who could be joining your organization.”
She also tells the candidate when they’re about to contact references, so the candidate can give those people a heads up. That’s especially critical now given how often people are contacted by telemarketers and ignore calls. “Most people let phone calls go through to voicemail,” she said. If a reference doesn’t answer, she then tries an email to set up a time to talk. If that doesn’t work either? She’ll ask the candidate for another reference.
2. Take references with a grain of salt
As important as references are, they make up a small portion of the overall evaluation of a potential candidate, Fowler said. That’s because the references are self-selected. These aren’t background checks. They’re chats with people who will most likely sing someone’s praises.
It’s extremely rare that a candidate will include someone who doesn’t like them — rare enough that Fowler has only seen it once in her career. (She’s also never had anyone make up a reference either, she added.) The interview process gives a much better idea of who someone is, and if they’re a right fit for the role, she added. “Those are going to be better tools” in the evaluation process, she said.
3. Try to talk to three different people
Instead of asking for any three references, she prefers to have someone who the candidate reported to, a work peer, and someone who reported to the candidate. “It gives you a full 360-degree view of their work style,” she said.
Fowler also recommends taking a look at a candidate’s digital footprint, which could turn up things about them that a recruiter wouldn’t hear from a reference — good or bad. Doing so “can give some good insights into the candidate,” she said, including social media and any previous media interviews. “What message are they putting out there into the web, and the universe? It can give you a better feel for the candidate that you’re hiring,” she said.
4. References aren’t necessary — or possible — for everyone
While references are standard for most workers, especially mid- to executive-level candidates, they’re not always necessary or helpful when hiring for entry-level and junior positions. It’s not that these roles aren’t important, but typical candidates for these jobs are either young or don’t have a lot of work experience, or connections, who a recruiter could talk to.
They haven’t “necessarily had enough tenure built up under their belt at their previous organization to the point where they have a pipeline of individuals that they can call for references,” she said.