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How to Avoid the Alligators

How to Avoid the Alligators

Reference CheckOriginally published on September 28, 2012 in the Philadelphia Business Journal.

I conduct reference checks early and often as I lead an executive search. Here’s why.

Years ago I was conducting an executive search for a leadership role in manufacturing. The ideal candidate was someone who was running a very large facility, had strong personal leadership skills, and had the continuous improvement experience that is important in manufacturing.

One day, I was referred to an individual who met all those qualifications plus some. She was senior, seasoned, and had progressed through the ranks quickly. There were a couple of potential concerns, including that she had jumped employers several times. However, her résumé and our subsequent phone conversations were strong enough that I flew to the West Coast to meet her.

The face-to-face interview confirmed the picture portrayed by her résumé. She was seasoned and accomplished, a “been there and done that” person. She also had a long track record of success in the continuous improvement approaches in which we were very interested.

However, I did come out of the interview with one concern: I had not seen beneath the surface of this individual. We spent over two hours together during which she told me everything that I could want to know about her professional progression, experiences, and accomplishments. And yes, we did talk about personal things as well — her kids and family, what she enjoyed doing out of work, where she grew up. But as we walked out of the restaurant, I felt that I did not really know her.

The way I see it, people are like ponds. Some people, when you take the time to get to know them, are like crystal clear mountain lakes. You can see right down the bottom. They are transparent people. What you see is what you get.

This woman felt more like a South Carolina swamp. The water was murky. I could see what was on the surface, but couldn’t see all the way down to the bottom. One of the problems with a murky swamp is that there could be an unseen alligator down there that would love to bite off your arm if you gave him the chance.

In addition, there was an interesting twist that happened after my lunch with this woman. I happened to walk her out to her car — and it was a mess.

Now this is an executive who is in charge of running a large manufacturing facility. Most manufacturing people will tell you that you can often walk into a plant and tell if it is well run by how it looks and the vibe of the people. Cleanliness and order is important in this world. Supposedly this individual ran just such a factory. Yet her car looked like it had just returned from a college road trip.

Why so? The pond was getting murkier.

I realize that I am making it seem that this individual’s weaknesses were pasted all over billboards for anyone to see. That is not the case. These were more subtle gut senses that I had in the midst of meeting and talking with an otherwise impressive person. This is where reference checks come in.

I like to talk to references relatively early in every recruiting process. The first reference with whom I spoke was glowing about this woman — she was the best boss he ever had. The second individual, her boss from a former company, was also very positive — until the very end of the reference check. It was then that I asked him a standard question. “Would you rehire her?” There was a pause. Which extended a bit. Then the reply was “Yes, depending upon the role.”

Particularly given my own qualms about this person’s transparency, this response was an alarm. In my experience, when people are proven, their former bosses respond to this question by saying things like “Absolutely, I would rehire her in a heartbeat.”

Anything short of that makes me pause.

In the end, it was all too much. She was not a final candidate. The strength of her résumé was not sufficient to overcome the fact that she was a murky pond.

Many corporations use 360-degree assessments. They provide confidential feedback for people on how they are perceived by their superiors, peers, and subordinates. Conducted well, reference checks are a 360-degree assessment for someone whom you have not yet hired.

Done right, reference checks allow people who have actually worked with candidates to confirm our doubts or assuage our fears about them before we hire them.

Here are some points to keep in mind about using reference checks to help avoid hiring mistakes:

  • Get written permission from the candidate to contact their references.
  • Don’t just use reference checks as a final line of defense. Conduct some of those reference checks earlier in the interview process. Then you can follow up on what you learn in final interviews.
  • Ask candidates to take responsibility by encouraging their references to take your call. In my experience, people make the time to provide a reference for a strong performer.
  • Talk to past superiors, peers, and subordinates – getting the perspective of people from all three levels can be illuminating. Some people are great employees but lousy bosses, or vice versa.
  • For senior roles, have senior people conduct reference calls. Executives are more apt to provide honest feedback when speaking with a peer as opposed to a junior HR person.
  • Listen between the lines. The reference I discuss above was positive in his response — just not positive enough.
  • Ask references to suggest other possible references for a candidate. Then ask the candidate for permission to contact those individuals as well. Strong performers have nothing to hide — they will be glad to have you speak with more people.
  • Use LinkedIn to see if you know people who know your candidate. Then ask for permission to contact those individuals as well.
  • If you hire someone else to conduct reference checks, make sure that person is seasoned and accomplished. References won’t get honest with a lightweight.

Nothing is more important than hiring the right people and avoiding hiring mistakes. Reference checking is an important part of this process. Get a system in place for conducting them right so you can avoid those alligators down in the murk.

ERIC HERRENKOHL is president of Herrenkohl Consulting (www.herrenkohlconsulting.com), an executive search and consulting firm in the Philadelphia area. He is also the author of the Amazon bestseller “How to Hire A-Players” (www.howtohireaplayers.com), described as “the definitive book on talent acquisition.” He can be reached at eric@herrenkohlconsulting.com.



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