Reference Checks


A recent article on by Richard Branson caught my eye.  The article is entitled “How I Hire: Focus on Personality.”  He writes: “The first thing to look for when searching for a great employee is somebody with a personality that fits with your company culture. Most skills can be learned, but it is difficult to train people on their personality. If you can find people who are fun, friendly, caring and love helping others, you are onto a winner.”  While all that may be true, basing a hiring decision on a candidate’s perceived personality during a job interview can also be a costly mistake!  Why?  Because there are people out there who interview extremely well, but who have poor records of past job performance.  The reverse is also true.  There are people who simply don’t interview well, but who have outstanding records of past job performance.  The only way to make sure a candidate is the right fit for your particular corporate culture is through careful reference checking.  At least in my opinion, basing a hiring decision on your gut feelings about the candidate’s personality is way too much like playing Russian roulette.

Here’s a story that makes the point: Several years ago I was contacted by a customer in Ohio that was in the process of hiring a new plant manager.  The hiring manager called and told me they had carefully interviewed their top candidate and that he had all the right answers to the questions asked, presented himself very well, was very personable, and seemed to be technically competent.  The hiring manager said they were ready to make a job offer, but thought they should have his references checked – just to be sure.

I asked the very first reference with whom I spoke what he thought the candidate’s main strength was.  There was a long pause before he responded by saying, “Interviewing.”  I asked him if he could expand a little on his answer.  This is what he had to say, “We interviewed him, and he had all the right answers to the questions we asked, presented himself well, was very personable, and impressed us with his apparent technical competence.  We hired him.  After being on the job about six months, it was clear that he could only do about a third of what he claimed he could do.  When it was all said and done, that hiring decision cost us over $80K in salary and benefits, not to mention the cost of doing another search after we terminated him.”  It should be noted that all of his references essentially confirmed his skill at interviewing.

When I called the prospective employer who was about to hire the same guy for the plant manager’s position, I could almost hear his chin drop over the phone!  They were prepared to offer this guy a salary in excess of $100K plus benefits – based solely on his skill at interviewing.

It’s fine to use a “seat of the pants” assessment of personality when interviewing a candidate for employment;  but failing to check references thoroughly before making a hiring decision can lead to very expensive hiring mistakes.