How to make sure reference checks are worth the effort
HR professionals know that resume exaggeration is alive and well. In fact, a recent recent survey revealed that 85% of applicants have embellished their resume in some way. And about half of HR pros say a resume lie would be a deal breaker.
With all that puffery going on, background checks would seem to be the antidote. But another survey showed that 46% of managers don’t bother calling references. Perhaps employers are tired of applicant-provided references providing largely glowing reviews, but experts say employers shouldn't rule out other options.
Calling on former employers for help
Resume exaggerations can range from fudged employment dates or titles (perhaps designed to bypass a company's ATS filters) to unearned educational credentials or omitted criminal convictions.
A call to the candidate's former employer can help with some of this, but not all. After all, more and more employers will provide little more than employment dates and titles. So are these reference checks even worthwhile anymore?
"Yes, references are still worth your time," Susan Bowyer, branch manager, HR/Administration at Addison Group, told HR Dive via email. Even if the only data you receive is a confirmation of employment dates, that at least tells you that the candidate worked at the company.
Bowyer offered another tip: As litigation-shy HR departments are loathe to provide detail, it can help to simply ask whether the individual is eligible for rehire. "If a candidate is not eligible for rehire," she said, "that would be a major red flag" perhaps requiring some deeper digging.
Information about soft skills is even more difficult to come by, but you may strike gold if you're calling a smaller company. "Small to midsize companies have a specific work culture," Bowyer said. "They can be more closely-knit than larger businesses and more willing to share, particularly about soft skills."
Pulling information from candidates
Most job seekers know not to bad-mouth their former employer, even if they worked under horrific conditions. They will often skirt around their reason for leaving, not wanting to burn bridges or appear bitter, perhaps merely offering that "it wasn’t a good fit."
But the same hemming and hawing that good talent uses to avoid trash talking is also used by applicants who don't want to reveal that they were fired. Smart recruiters often follow up with "Not a good fit for you, or the company?" If the candidate tries to skirt the issue, or says it was mutual, it may be worth investigating. "Most candidates are not forthcoming in an interview on why they left previous positions," says Bowyer, "so references help fill the gap and provide further insight."
Trolling for information
While HR knows that fishing expeditions into candidate's personal social media can be fraught with liability, LinkedIn — specifically designed to showcase an applicant's work history and skills — can be useful.
For example, if they have many recommendations from peers and co-workers, that can be useful. But if they're all recently posted, it could indicate that the candidate is stacking the deck.
Take LinkedIn profiles for what they are, and nothing else, the experts say. They can be helpful in deciding whether it’s worth reaching out to a candidate to inteview, Bowyer said, but it's still critical to speak with someone to really suss out their skills and character. "[J]ust reading through a candidate’s LinkedIn recommendations is not enough."
Can tech solve these problems?
Employers understandably need to get certain information pre-hire — but they also understandably face challenges in providing it to others, Ray Bixler, president and CEO of SkillSurvey told HR Dive.
That's why his company believes the answer is confidentiality. They provide confidential surveys that job applicant send to references, which must include a mix of supervisors and co-workers. "The reference request comes from the job seeker by email," Bixler said, "which makes people more apt to open the email and respond." They’re told the former colleague or employee has signed a waiver allowing them to give information truthfully.
Because the reference information is confidential, people are willing to provide them, Bixler said. And the surveys get at the soft skills problem: References are asked to rank employees on things like professionalism, adaptability or anything else the client employer needs.
Bixler also noted that about 1% of applicants don’t go through with the reference process, possibly revealing their resume was exaggerated. "The longer it takes for an applicant to complete the questionnaire," he said, "the more you wonder about their intentions." Some applicants try to skew the results, putting in names of friends, or fake email addresses, but the platform can check the addresses to make sure they’re legitimate.
And while some have pointed out that automated checks mean HR can't listen for tone or ask followup questions, they certainly come with time savings. "About 85% of the references are completed in one to one-and-one half days," Bixler said. "[T]he data is sent directly to the recruiter’s inbox, with quality, detailed information they can use to make their hiring determination."
Whether using an automated system or playing phone tag with former employers and co-workers, the experts seem to agree: Reference information remains critically important for solid hiring decisions. Whether you go low-tech or high, reference checks today could mean fewer headaches tomorrow.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described SkillSurvey's offerings. The company's surveys are best described as "confidential." The story has been updated to reflect that change and HR Dive regrets the error.
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