The great British poet Lord Byron once said, the past is the best prophet of the future. Two centuries after the death of the Lord, this motto still stands high in demand for personnel selection. Whenever a recruiter asks a candidate to talk about their professional success, projects or behaviour, they implicitly follow this premise. However, references are based on the assumption that you can predict future success, even more if you do not ask the candidates themselves but a neutral person.
Recruiters often trust job references – but is that trust really justified? Are references really as meaningful as they seem? As a result, there are some traps you should be aware of…
What are references?
References are assessments of an applicant regarding their job performance and behaviour. They are not given by the candidates themselves, but rather, by a previous employer or a supervisor so that future employers may receive an objective assessment. The format of references differ according to country. Also, the step of the selection process when recruiters normally ask for them, can be very different from culture to culture. The higher a position is located in the company’s hierarchy, the more likely recruiters tend to ask for references, usually.
What is the purpose of a reference?
References can serve two purposes: The first one is to confirm facts — What tasks did a candidate have in their last position? How long did they work there? What was the reason for their resignation? What is more difficult, however, is to gain a more differentiated assessment of a candidate’s performance.
Typical pitfalls when evaluating references
To make sure that the request reference reveals job-relevant information, you should consider the following:
1. What kind of information is needed, exactly? Many reference checks are unstructured. As with job interviews, you should ask yourself what competencies/skills you want to check with a reference. When asking for references by phone, validity increases when you make sure that you know exactly which competencies you want to check. Then, you need to make sure that you are proceeding in a structured way and rate those competencies on a scale.
2. Who is giving the reference? Is the person who gave the reference qualified enough to evaluate the former employee? Did they really work together or did they just meet once a year at the annual meeting? We recommend clarifying this issue to make sure that you have a valuable reference.
3. To what extent does the environment influence the behaviour? The work performance depends not only on skills, but also strongly on the work environment. If at their previous position a candidate acted poorly in their tasks, team or market situation, then this does not necessarily mean that they will perform poorly in a different environment, too.
Accordingly, former supervisors tend to overestimate the influence of a person on results. For example, when evaluating a reference of a potential sales person, you should not forget to ask for the respective market environment or product cycle, which means: have information about influential parameters in order to draw valid conclusions
4. Does the reference fit into the overall picture? Pay attention to the conditions that lead to the candidate’s resignation. For example, an employer is likely to give a very positive evaluation in the case of a so called “gentleman’s agreement”, meaning he wanted the employee to leave. The latter agrees to do so on the condition that the employer provides a very positive evaluation of his performance.
Do you know any other pitfalls that you would like to share with us? Then just leave a comment.
We also recommend you the following article: “The Catchphrase Jungle: Job references and what they really mean.”