Reference checking, as we all know, is an in-depth evaluation of past job performance based on extensive conversations with current or previous superiors, peers, and sometimes subordinates. Is the real purpose of reference checking to ferret out poor candidates or to hire the best people for the job? Many employers use reference checking as an investigative tool to help insure that candidates for employment can do all they claim they can do. Still others use reference checking to see if the candidate will be a good fit for their particular corporate culture. So, in many ways, employers are checking references for both reasons at once: to make good hires and avoid bad ones.
There is, however, a third benefit that often comes from careful job performance-based reference checking – finding out what a candidate needs to advance his or her career and, thereby, increase his or her value to the company. A classic case is the company who needed to hire a vice president of manufacturing. One of the key skills the job required was the ability to speak effectively in front of large groups of people. When the company HR people called us with the assignment, they made a point of asking us to focus particularly on the candidate’s speaking skills. Since that particular talent was critical to the company, we obviously integrated a question about it in our normal reference check. About halfway through the interview, we asked all three references how they would describe the candidate’s ability as a speaker.
Throughout the reference interviews, we heard nothing but praise for the candidate’s overall job performance, leadership skills, technical knowledge, managerial talent, dedication to the job, and hard-driving desire to succeed in every task he undertook. But, when references were asked about his public speaking ability, that turned out to be his one area of weakness. As one reference put it, “He can’t say ‘boo’ to a goose if he has to stand and talk before a crowd.”
Keeping in mind that everything else about the candidate’s past job performance was glowing, the prospective employer decided to hire him anyway, but insisted that he take a course in public speaking at a nearby college. Since the candidate knew his references would be contacted and since he also knew that his speaking skills weren’t good, he readily agreed to enroll in the course although he thought it was a little demeaning. Despite that, after a few anxiety-filled speeches in the class, he gradually became more and more comfortable with public speaking – and particularly comfortable when speaking on a subject about which he was eminently familiar.
After the course ended, he became one of the more articulate spokesmen for the company and was extremely grateful for their foresight in having him take the class in public speaking. This is a perfect example of how careful reference checking can point out an area for improvement that didn’t disqualify the candidate from being hired, but took a solid performer and made him even better!