For Internal Reference Checks, Keep the Salt Handy

by EdgeLink on June 18, 2009 in Uncategorized

There’s no arguing that references are an essential part of the hiring process. They offer valuable insight into a candidate’s workplace accomplishments and character. At EdgeLink, we conduct a thorough reference process when screening candidates, vetting their resumes and track records with former employers and educational institutions.

All that said, there is one kind of reference check (whether it’s positive or negative) that you should consider with a few extra grains of salt. It’s the informal, internal, word-of-mouth check many employers conduct by asking their own internal team members whether they know the potential candidate or have friends who have worked with the candidate.

Polling your internal talent to get the “street’s” perspective on a potential hire sounds like a great idea at first. You may learn insights directly from former colleagues and get an in-person perspective on the individual’s performance and workplace personality. But what may seem like a no-brainer, no-cost vetting effort rarely yields the most reliable insight. Here’s why:

Fair critique requires perspective.
To give a fair analysis of a candidate’s job performance, the evaluator needs perspective. While colleagues have day-to-day contact and often collaborate, they are not mandated with the task of measuring, critiquing and improving each other’s performance. An individual, who may seem to be extremely busy and hardworking, might turn out to be very weak at final delivery and execution when management takes a bottom-line look. On the other hand, some of the most productive employees try as they may, might not be achieving the standards required to be truly excellent in a role.

Supervisors who are responsible for the individual’s job performance not only have clearer insight into the work and results delivered, they have a personal stake in their employees’ success. That added stake adds more weight and more insight.

The less emotion the better.
People spend a lot of time in the workplace. It can be hard to get along with everyone, but it is also a place where strong friendships and loyalties are built. It’s hard to ascertain whether a word-of-mouth critique of a candidate is tinged by personality conflicts, shaded by the devotion of friendship or objective enough to yield real insight.

How reliable is the grapevine?
Few will argue that many misunderstandings occur through grapevine communications and second-hand accounts. As the degrees of separation between former colleagues and industry acquaintances increase, the chances of misinformation and misunderstandings clouding references rises as well. That must be factored in when gathering internal references.

You must account for change.
This final point is true with all references—people change. At EdgeLink, we know that the reference checks we conduct are excellent for fact checking: hiring and exit dates, work accomplishments, career paths across an organization, educational background, test results and workload. However, when it comes to workplace character (work ethic, team building skills, professionalism, etc.), we have learned that people change—sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.

Just recently, in fact, a client refused to interview one of the IT consultants EdgeLink had recruited due to a poor internal reference. One of the client’s staff members had worked with the candidate years prior and had not been impressed by his workplace professionalism. EdgeLink, on the other hand, had conducted extensive interviewing and reference checking and felt certain this candidate was a great match for the job as well as a highly professional technologist.

EdgeLink convinced the client to give the candidate a shot and encouraged the staff member who gave the reference to join the interview process. The client ended up loving the candidate and the internal staff member was also impressed by the interviews. The candidate was hired and has been a productive and valued team member ever since. The lesson: We all have our career high points and low points. Allow for the possibility that people can change in numerous ways, especially when significant time has passed.

So what do we at EdgeLink recommend? A ban on internal reference gathering? Absolutely not. We just want to remind business leaders and hiring managers to proceed with caution as you gather staff feedback prior to interviews and testing. Consider the reference information provided, the source and even structure interview questions to address any information you have learned.

Above all, don’t base a hiring decision on internal references alone. You run the risk of missing great hires or, even worse, hiring and investing in professionals who have great internal connections but turn out to be poorly suited to their new roles. Make informed hiring decisions by tapping into a rich portfolio of candidate information and conducting a thorough, neutral interview process.