It’s an unfortunate fact, but a fact nonetheless: Some job seekers lie about their qualifications and experience (or, at least, misrepresent them). According to surveys of hiring managers:
- 53% of job applications contained inaccurate information.
- 34% of all job applications contained outright lies about experience, education and ability to perform essential job functions.
- 11% of applicants misrepresented why they left an employer.
- 9% of applicants lied about having a college degree, listed false employers or said they had held jobs that didn’t exist.
So how do employers separate fact from fiction and avoid making a costly bad hire? Here at TPD, we suggest doing pre-employment reference checks. Some organizations may argue that reference checking is an outdated, time-wasting process. But we’ve found that checking references is a critical step in verifying the information that we’ve gathered from candidates through resume reviews, phone screens and job interviews.
“When employers stop asking candidates for references, the degree of falsification increases,” says Nikita Weisgerber, Vice President of Operations at TPD. “If we aren’t asking for references – giving candidates reason to believe that we will be verifying their claims – it gives the impression that you can put anything on your resume because no one is checking.”
Now that we’ve made the case for why you should be checking references, we’ll share some best practices for how to do it.
(Download TPD’s free reference check form)
Tell Candidates Early
Weisgerber recommends letting candidates know early on in the hiring process that you’ll be checking references. When they know that their references will be checked, candidates are likely to be more truthful. Sometimes candidates will back out altogether – and that's not a bad thing, Weisgerber says.
“As you get into the habit of explaining to all candidates early in the screening process that their references will be checked, you will find that some candidates start to remove themselves from the running,” she says. “Don’t worry too much about it. Those are likely not the candidates you want to hire anyway. They may have been dishonest in the process thus far, and it’s easier and less embarrassing to remove themselves from consideration rather than facing rejection.”
Talk to Former Supervisors
At TPD, we request contact information for former supervisors for roles held during the past 10 years, or going back three roles. Former supervisors can speak directly to a candidate’s day-to-day performance, areas where they excel and areas for improvement.
It’s a red flag for us when candidates refuse to provide those references.
“That may sound harsh. But why would a candidate not want to provide us with a reference?” Weisgerber says.
Often candidates will respond that they haven’t maintained contact with a former boss or offer a similar excuse.
“What does it really mean? Think about the top performers on your team and the relationship you have with them,” Weisgerber says. “They performed well for you; you have a good relationship. Would these people be confident enough to call you up in a couple of years and say: hey, I need a favor? Probably,” Weisgerber says.
On the other hand, she says, consider lower performers – they may be uncertain about what a past supervisor will say about them, making them hesitant to provide the reference.
“In short,” Weisgerber says, “top performers tend to keep in touch and be completely comfortable reaching out to past supervisors. They are also resourceful; they know how to track someone down on Linkedin, email or by other means.”
In the case that a former supervisor truly is unreachable, ask the candidate for the next supervisor in line or, at least, contact Human Resources to verify the candidate’s employment history with the organization.
One additional note: With the exception of students or entry-level applicants, we steer clear of personal references because, as Weisgerber explains, “they usually lack relevance to the job and will always be glowing.”
Use a Structured Format
Like phone screens and interviews, reference checks are most effective when you use a structured format. In this case, we suggest an introduction-body-closing format that looks like this:
“This is where we want to establish the facts – the validity of claims made on the resume,” Weisgerber says. “So we cover the basics.”
These include things like:
- The reference’s working relationship
- Employment dates
- Job duties and responsibilities
- The reason the role came to an end
“For the body of the reference, you want to think of the core competencies you’ve defined that make someone successful in the role or at your company and ask questions directly related to those,” per Weisgerber.
For instance, if you talked with the candidate about how they dealt with upset customers, you would ask the reference about the candidate’s skill in that area. The answers to these questions will provide insight into whether the candidate was giving accurate representations during the interview.
“When asking situational questions I advise my clients that they want to think about hearing answers in the form of the STAR technique,” Weisgerber says. “STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action and Result – what was the situation, the task, the action and the result?”
Avoid asking leading questions – like, I heard the candidate was good at dealing with upset customers – to ensure you’re getting unbiased, accurate responses.
A good closing question is, “Would you hire the candidate again?”
“A strong reference checker listens beyond the words and into the tone of the response,” Weisgerber says, “which will provide you strong evidence of the truthfulness of their answer. Is it an emphatic “yes!” or is it a lackluster one? Listen carefully, and don’t be afraid to ask for more information.”