EMPLOYMENT REFERENCES – What’s the point?

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Personally, I don’t think employment or character references are worth the time spent requesting them and the time spent responding to them.

How many times have you been asked for references on past employees this year?  You have gone into your personnel files to see when the individual started and left employment and you needed to remind yourself what their exact job title was. You probably didn’t look to see if they had any performance issues or what their absence record was like. After all, you are never going to share that information in a reference to another employer or recruitment agency in case you are sued by the ex-employee.  Does this sound familiar?

What about when you apply for a role and you are asked to provide contact details for your references? You provide the name of someone you know who will say wonderful things about your personality, someone who will enthusiastically endorse your team working, communication or management skills. You are not going to give the details of Jim, the supervisor who you have never really got along with. Be honest, this is what most of us do.

So, if that is the case, you have to wonder why we bother asking for references. I know that some of you are saying, “We have to check where new employees have been working before” or “in our industry, we have to do background checks”. I understand this, however, the type of references we are talking about are not going to help you decide whether to employ or not.

A good habit to get into is asking the potential new employee for a copy of the ETB termination form because this will provide information on where the person worked, the dates of employment and what was their previous role. If the person is not employed when you interview or when you are ready to make an offer of employment, having sight of this form will give information on why they left their last role.

So, in place of asking for references, I’d like to suggest the following as better ways to spend your time.

Before you invite a candidate to an interview, send them your company values or, if you prefer, the types of behaviour you are looking for from your people. Ask them to describe how their values or behaviour match with your company’s values. You can then use their response as a discussion piece at the interview. One local company I know has given candidates the option of filming a video CV as an alternative to traditional work history type written one.  You could offer this to candidates as an option to respond to your values question.  An example of a values focused question could be; “tell me about a time when you used your initiative to solve a complex problem.”

How about using a personality test before you offer the role? There are a number of tests available – peoplemaps, Myers Briggs and Thomas that can all supply an accurate insight into how people may behave at work, thus giving you a better picture of the candidate when recruiting. I have been using the Myers Briggs Type Indicator successfully for more than ten years to assess how individuals communicate, to understand their motivation and their preferences for ideal work environments.  Using personality testing can help match your candidates with the job profile more effectively.

Another useful way to determine if your candidate is ‘The One’ is to play out scenarios that are based as much as possible on real events. Be careful how you come up with scenarios as some of the more inventive people I have worked with in the past have been very creative. Some scenarios have included “all of your colleagues being killed in a plane” or “the building being flooded by a massive tidal wave”. Too much television I think! Consider what this person will be required to do on a regular basis and design a role-play that simulates normal working life. See how the candidate interacts with others, how they react to problems, whether they are able to give you well-thought out solutions in a short period.

An example of a scenario could be: “your colleague has called to say he is delayed because he chose to drive in this morning and there is a huge queue at the border.  His has a potential new client arriving in 15 minutes to hear an overview of the service the company can provide. He asks if you can host this meeting by making the client comfortable and being ready to speak with the client about our business.” Scenarios like this give a great insight into how the candidate operates under pressure and how resourceful they are. More importantly, have they done their homework on your company? I once applied for the role of an emergency operator with the police. At my interview they asked me to answer an emergency call from a road traffic accident.  I felt under pressure, however, I believe it gave me the opportunity to show I could be cool and calm in a crisis.

And lastly, there is no fail-safe way to know a candidate is a perfect fit for your company so remember to consider a probation period, a three to six month window of opportunity for you to decide if you have chosen well. During this time, it is vital for you to closely and continually monitor, measure and assess the new employee’s fit with your company values.  Question if their behaviour fits with what the role requires. If there is any doubt, then this feedback should be shared immediately so that the new person is given the chance to be successful in the role. Waiting for three months to pass before sharing feedback is not realistic or fair.

Remember you can always provide a reference to the employee when they leave so that you are not dealing with requests on an ad-hoc basis. Requesting employment references? Well, that’s your choice.