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Automated Reference Checks Graduate With Honors

Seeking Mostly to Save Time, Talent Acquisition Leaders at DePaul University Got Much, Much More
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The Challenge: Reducing a backlog of reference checks

When Jessica Cook was named Director of Talent Acquisition at DePaul University in Chicago in October 2014, a lone student was performing background checks on all of the school’s job candidates. To get an idea of the potential pitfalls in that practice, you only need to know how large DePaul is.

With more than 22,400 students, DePaul is the largest Catholic university in the United States and the largest private institution in Chicago. Its team of three recruiters hire up to 400 people a year — about 120 hires a year each.

When Cook joined DePaul, checking job references was woefully running behind the needs of recruiters to fill jobs — and not just because the talent acquisition team had only one student intern to do the job.

“With the kind of compliance you need to meet in university hiring, reference checks got very, very backlogged,” Cook says.

Cook’s first solution for upgrading DePaul’s method for reference checks was to make her hiring managers responsible for the task. The proposal had three potential benefits: free up her TA team to have more time on strategic work; speed up the hiring process; and, she believed, “having a manager talking to another manager about a potential hire was better and would give us more and better information than having a student calling that reference and just working off a script.”

The problem, Cook says, is that the process “quickly became a check-the-box, five-question ordeal for the managers.” In fact, only once in five years did the university not hire someone because of a reference check, Cook says.

In addition, this model:

  • Failed to yield any insight into a candidate’s specific behaviors that would be relevant to the job they’re applying for
  • Didn’t provide any data on hiring benchmarks, such as first-year turnover for cause, that would help improve hiring or post-hire performance
  • Simply further burdened the hiring managers

“Before my team or a hiring manager actually meets the candidate, we already know a whole lot about them from their reference feedback report.”

Jessica Cook

Director of Talent Acquisition, DePaul University

The Solution: Automated reference checks improve interviews

Cook discovered SkillSurvey at the CUPA-HR annual conference (College and University Professional Association for Human Resources), where she saw a demonstration of SkillSurvey Reference, the automated, online reference-checking solution. She says she immediately saw its potential for her and her team, including:

  • Getting better information from references
  • Getting truly actionable information that could be used in hiring
  • Removing the burden of reference checks from her team and hiring managers

“I just didn’t see any negatives,” Cook says. “I just saw all of these positives from using technology like SkillSurvey.”

DePaul implemented SkillSurvey Reference in early 2019. They use the program after a candidate’s initial phone screening, and to prepare for the first in-person interview — much earlier in the hiring process than ever before.

“Before my team or a hiring manager actually meets the candidate, we already know a whole lot about them from their reference feedback report,” Cook says. “We’re able to ask much better interview questions. We can probe specific points — where a candidate needs to work on a specific area or skill based on the input provided by references. You can tailor your interview with the feedback SkillSurvey provides you and use the SkillSurvey job-specific interview guides.”

Also, although SkillSurvey Reference is currently being used as a stand-alone solution in the university’s Talent Acquisition department, they plan on integrating it into Oracle Cloud Recruiting as they move to that platform.

“We’re able to ask much better interview questions. We can probe specific points — where a candidate needs to work on a specific area or skill based on the input provided by references.”

Jessica Cook

Director of Talent Acquisition, DePaul University

The Outcomes: Faster, more accurate reference checks lead to better hiring decisions

Managers are grateful to have more time to focus on their work, reference checks are coming in faster, and — even though it wasn’t DePaul’s primary reason for using SkillSurvey Reference — Cook says they’re making better hiring decisions.

The university’s CHRO was specifically impressed with the solution’s candidate snapshots, which at a glance, show a potential new hire’s strengths and areas for improvement. She also appreciated SkillSurvey Reference’s candidate comparison feature, which allows hiring managers to virtually line up candidates and assess them based on different variables.

“It’s very easy to read and helps us quickly decide which candidate to move forward with,” Cook says.

Jessica Gagle is Director of the Career Management Center in DePaul’s Kellstadt Graduate School of Business. She’s used SkillSurvey Reference to help make two hires over six months. “I appreciate that the data is presented in a table, so it’s easy to compare and look for any outliers. Also, because it is usually five references, I’m getting more insight; we only used to speak with three people.”

Also, scheduling even those three interviews for all candidates “was a nightmare,” Gagle says. “So I appreciate the ease of the automated survey.”

Another great benefit came unexpectedly: SkillSurvey Reference uncovered the first falsified reference report from a candidate. The automated solution identified that the candidate’s references responded from the same IP address. That can happen if the references are from the same company, but in this case, they weren’t.

The SkillSurvey account manager advised Cook to have a team member call the references directly, as an audit, to verify if the person had provided that particular reference. It turned out they hadn’t.

“With SkillSurvey, reference-checking is more accurate, because as studies have shown, people are more honest when they know their responses are kept confidential.” Cook says.

Hiring process speed increased, freeing team to have more time for strategic work

Received better, actionable information from references

Removed burden of reference checking from team and hiring managers

“With SkillSurvey, reference-checking is more accurate, because as studies have shown, people are more honest when they know their responses are kept confidential.”

Jessica Cook

Director of Talent Acquisition, DePaul University

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