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Editor’s note: We’re featuring a series of blog posts related to our interactive Infographic reasons you should rethink reference checking. In this blog post, SkillSurvey’s Chief Analytics Officer weighs in with research to debunk some of the myths that folks have about reference checks.

How to rely on the wisdom of others when evaluating a job candidate

HR and talent professionals, hiring managers and company leaders agree when it comes to wanting to know ahead of time about a potential employee’s past work behavior or professional reputation. Most generally, when thinking about a candidate’s “soft skills,” they are interested in knowing about their work ethic, dependability, problem solving and ability to be a team player.

Some recruiters feel that resumes, personality tests and what the candidate tells them during in-person interviews provide all the information they need. Yet information supplied by the candidate, which could be considered a “sales pitch,” can be rehearsed or faked by the candidate or may be biased by the candidate’s own lack of self-awareness. There is a vast body of research showing how biases in candidate self-reports impact the usefulness of resumes, personality tests, and interviews.

So, what to do? Rely on the wisdom and experience of others – those who have worked with the candidate in the past. Research suggests that the observations of others may be more objective, and less likely to be prone to the biases mentioned above.

But this source of information is prone to concerns around legal compliance as well as whether the information gathered is meaningful with respect to future work performance. In fact, there are many urban myths concerning the value of checking references.

Let’s debunk several of the myths associated with reference checking by taking a closer look at the data. Here are a few of the most important myth-busting examples.

Myth #1: The reference-checking process is a waste of time.

When it’s moved online, reference-checking takes no time at all to reach five references (just 5 minutes for the recruiter to create a candidate in the system). With a link to a job-specific survey, the references experience a simple process to respond and provide feedback. Most important, SkillSurvey’s studies of candidates who are subsequently hired find that the proportion of references who respond to the candidate’s request and the candidate’s overall ratings are key predictors of future job success. For example, these factors are statistically related to first-year turnover, an outcome with estimated costs of anywhere from 1 to 3 times the annual compensation of the individual who terminates.

Myth #2: Job candidates only solicit references from those who will say positive things about them.

SkillSurvey’s published peer-reviewed research has found that the reference feedback is predictive of first-year turnover. There are a number of other studies that have found that others are often more accurate in their observations than the candidates themselves. For example, in a study published in Psychological Bulletin, ratings by others predicted an individual’s job performance better than ratings provided by the target individuals themselves.

So – if reference feedback is predictive of future work outcomes such as performance and turnover, it follows that references are very likely to “tell it like it is” and not focus solely on the candidate’s positive qualities. One possible reason for this is that reference providers are more candid when they are ensured that their feedback will remain confidential, such as via an online, confidential survey where their responses are summarized along with those from others. Another possible reason is that reference providers feel a sense of duty or obligation to the prospective employer. It is perhaps for these reasons that we at SkillSurvey see 83% of all reference providers offering narrative comments on a candidate’s areas for improvement. Some of the top areas for improvement, published by SkillSurvey in the peer-reviewed journal, Personnel Assessment and Decisions, included the need for candidates to improve their stress management, attention to detail, communication with others, and ability to manage their time and priorities.

Employers can take steps to expand the reach of the reference check beyond the manager, and beyond the one person at work with whom a candidate goes to lunch. SkillSurvey research has shown that coworkers provide unique, valuable insights on the work performance of the candidate.

An employer can also ask the candidate to broaden their reference outreach to include certain references of interest (like from their most recent job, or from a certain industry).

Myth #3: Candidates can try to game or fake the reference check, by asking friends or family members to serve as their work or job references.

We’ve already mentioned that candidates are known to fake or embellish information that they provide on job applications, resumes, personality tests, and during interviews. So, it follows that they might be tempted to fake their job references. One solution can be to require multiple references from the candidate, say at least five. Develop a thorough line of questions that confirm relationship timelines and solicit pertinent information as to the job-related competence that the candidate has exhibited. With the advent of digital technology, you don’t need to guess whether the reference on the other end of the telephone line is an authentic reference; that is, someone who has worked with the candidate in the past. Authenticity can be assured by having a business email address, and the IP address of the computer device used by the reference. Even without using online tools, an employer can simply check the business telephone number of the references provided. Doing a little extra homework can go a long way.

Myth #4: References are reluctant to say anything for fear of being sued for defamation.

Most U.S. states offer immunity or ‘conditional privilege’ to a reference provider – if the information provided about the job candidate is true.1 A reluctance on the part of a reference provider impedes the hiring decision, as complete information is lacking on the candidate. Furthermore, many employers need to be concerned with “negligent hiring” lawsuits – these are focused upon an employer’s failure to conduct due diligence on a candidate during the hiring process.2 One way to get job references to feel more comfortable with opening up is to communicate to them that their feedback is being aggregated along with feedback from at least two other persons. As stated above, we see 83% of all reference providers offering narrative comments on a candidate’s areas for improvement.

Myth #5: Reference checks are the last step in the hiring process.

Josh Hannah, a venture capital consultant, writes on the pitfalls that most people encounter when it comes to reference checking. “You laboriously negotiate to pick your favorite and only then do you ask the candidate for a few references to call. After all this time and effort … you call those references with a confirmatory bias.” Indeed, in its basic form, a reference check is simply used to confirm relevant work timelines or information you have already obtained. However, the reference check can, and should, go beyond confirmation of dates worked. That is, it can be useful during the hiring process by netting critical information earlier, before it’s too late. For example, it can be used to identify whether the candidate performed key aspects of the role, and how well they did it. This type of data can be “gold” when developing interview questions and enable you to gather even more insight on the candidate.

It is imperative to understand what is necessary for the candidate to succeed in the job. There should be a close relationship between those in the recruitment function and those who are making the hiring decisions. Focus on the key behaviors critical to the job, and make sure that the job description is accurate and realistic.

Myth #6: Social networking technologies can deliver more or better information than traditional reference checking.

Some social media sites allow candidates to build out online resumes that include recommendations and endorsements of skills from others. Those concerned with gathering only positive information from references about the candidate might not want to rely solely on information posted on social media websites. While this information can be supplemental to a reference check, it is important to remember that the candidate has the ability to bias or exclude certain information about their previous work performance. Finally, is it information that is relevant to the job for which they are applying?

Myth #7: Reference feedback is not predictive of meaningful outcomes.

There is a growing body of research evidence proving that the feedback of others is predictive of many outcomes, some of which are major pain points of most organizations. For example, over the past few years, feedback provided by others has significantly predicted academic achievement, personality traits, overall work performance including team assignments, and turnover.3,4,5,6.

Talent leaders need to be able to separate fact from fiction when they’re screening candidates. A job candidate’s references are the most reliable sources of the true story of how the candidate actually performed on the job.

Explore more. Check out SkillSurvey’s Reasons to Rethink Reference Checking Interactive Infographic.

1 Gatewood, R. D., Feild, H. S., & Barrick,M. (2015). Human resource selection (8th edition). Mason, OH: Thomson South-Western.
2 Ryan, A. M., & Laser, M. (1991). Negligent hiring and defamation: Areas of liability related to pre-employment inquiries. Personnel Psychology, 44, 293-319.
3 Zimmerman, R.D., Triana, M.C., & Barrick, M.R. (2010). Predictive criterion-related validity of observer ratings of personality and job-related competencies using multiple raters and multiple performance criteria. Human Performance, 23, 361-378.
4 Hedricks, C. A., Robie, C., & Oswald, F. L. (2013). Web-based multisource reference checking: An investigation psychometric integrity and applied benefits. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 21, 99–110.
5 Connelly, B.S., & Ones, D.S. (2010). Another perspective on personality: Meta-analytic integration ofobservers’ accuracy and predictive validity. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 1092–1122.
6 Oh, I.S., Wang, G., &Mount, M.K. (2010). Validity of observer ratings of the five-factor model of personality traits: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96, 762-773.

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