If you can find one, an honest, transparent employee reference is a great shortcut to discovering whether this person sitting in front of you is as great a candidate as your interview team claims.
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The hitch is that there are two factors conspiring to prevent you from having that conversation:
- Human resources departments of previous employers are sensitive to the legal liability. In most cases the company HR department has made it clear to all: “Thou shall never provide a reference for a former employee.”
- The candidate will be directing you to friendly references that have been briefed on the upcoming call and coached on what to say.
You will not always be successful, but if you can find a Great Reference, and couple it with a great interview, you have significantly upped your chances of finding a great hire.
Independent of the references provided, ask the candidate for contact information for a senior individual they worked for or with in a previous role and who knows their work well. How these references respond to an inquiry is in itself is a great filter; talent most often leaves previous roles on great terms, whether of their own choice or not. They will have impressed people in leadership, and those individuals are often willing to go out on a limb to support the individual – HR policies or not.
Connect personally. Great References will not open up to your HR personnel as they will to someone they see as in a similar role to themselves; they will empathize with the leader's desire to find the right talent for a role.
Set up a time when they can put their feet up and chat for 10 minutes or so. If they are not willing to find the time, that in itself can be telling.
In your conversation, describe the role in detail and ask how good a fit it is for the candidate. You are looking for an honest discussion of how this person would fit in the role, and a GR should be just as interested in find the right role for the candidate.
Listen for and draw out areas that are not a good fit, as you are looking to understand the weak suits, as well. This is as much a qualifier for the reference as the candidate. Hearing “Can’t think of anything, I think they would be a good in this role” is a red flag for a coached reference.
Listen for grand slam reference statements, such as "It was a mistake for the company to let them go," or "If you have a chance to hire this individual, do it." When we heard these, we often moved quickly to a hire.
Use the reference as a source for additional references. The further you get from the initial reference, the less biased the inputs become.
Great References are not much help in knowing if someone is NOT a fit for a role, but can be a great shortcut to the eureka moment of “Our search is over … hire that person now!”