Human Resources News & Insights

Catch candidates’ lies: 4 reference check keys

With jobs as scarce as they are, more candidates are exaggerating their skills and experience in an effort to stand out. The best way to separate what’s true from what’s not:

A well-conducted reference check.

Here are four key parts of the reference-checking process that many companies overlook:

1. Find out how well the reference knows that candidate’s work

Reference calls should always include the question, “What were the candidate’s responsibilities?” The purpose is two-fold. First, of course, you want to make sure the candidate gave you an accurate description of his or her experience.

And second, you want to verify that the reference directly supervised the candidate and knows the person’s work well. If the reference can only vaguely describe what the candidate did, you may not want to put that much stock in the rest of the interview.

2. Ask about management style and work environment

A candidate’s reference should be viewed in light of the former supervisor’s management style. Someone could give a glowing review — but that manager could have a completely different style than the head of the department you’re hiring for.

Likewise, learn other details of the company culture to help you judge the candidate’s fit. For example, the candidate may have excelled in a previous position that involved working mostly alone. If teamwork is more important in your position, you may take the review with a grain of salt. Excelling in one environment doesn’t guarantee success in another.

3. Pay attention to neutral statements

Many companies have policies requiring managers to offer only employment dates and job title. Some of those managers won’t give you any other info no matter how you ask.

But other times, references choose to say nothing — or refuse to say anything negative — on their own. That usually means there’s a problem — a good candidate will get a positive review, not a neutral one. Pay attention to lukewarm responses and ask probing questions when you can.

4. Have the candidate sign a waiver

The reason references are hard to get: Companies are afraid of getting sued. The solution: have the candidate sign a release of legal claims. Many companies will only provide useful information if you have one.

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  1. Every employment attorney I’ve talked to or attended a seminar by in the last several years advises that companies take the neutral reference approach. I hate it myself but since my job is to protect the company’s liability I follow the advise. So #3 above frustrates me since for consistency I have to be neutral on everyone. It does not mean there is a problem in most cases. I always try to probe in case you run across someone who does not listen to their attorney, but with “neutrals” I have to give the benefit of the doubt since that’s how we do our references.

  2. If I asked the person giving a reference if they gave neutral references to everyone and got a yes, that at least would tell me I wasn’t going anywhere with this reference.

  3. as a former employee who was fired , the shame alone is punishment enough, some people deserve a break and do not need any one to give a bad reference, they need a second chance,

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