Is there still a point to reference checks?

Office phone
Office phone
Editor's Note

This article originally appeared in the spring edition of OBJ’s HR Update. Click here to read more practical workplace solutions for Ottawa employers.


Many Ottawa employers have undertaken one, and even more have been on the receiving end of one: A reference check of a prospective employee.

In most cases, the traditional reference model is inherently flawed as job seekers are only inclined to provide the names of individuals likely to provide a positive endorsement – limiting the ability of hiring managers to glean any objective insights.

With this in mind, how can employers gain the maximum value from a reference check? What is the best way to identify candidates who are the best fit? And once they are hired, how can their managers help new employees succeed to the best of their potential?

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Ditch the checklist

Keira Torkko, the vice-president of employee experience at Assent Compliance, says the rigidity of the process often acts as a barrier to having an enlightened conversation with the person providing the reference.

“You can always tell when (the hiring manager is using) a checklist,” she says. “There’s no colouring outside the lines, and I think this is a wasted opportunity.”

Torkko gave the example of a particularly poor reference question she saw recently. “It was a one to 10 ranking across a number of skills,” she says. This can be unfair, Torkko explains, because different people can rank the same candidate quite differently. “There’s less ability to have a conversation.”

Instead, she recommends asking questions that open up a dialogue and help to reveal the candidate’s values.

“I might ask questions about how they demonstrated collaboration to solve a problem,” she says. This is important, Torkko explains, because it’s less important to hear about what a job candidate did than how they did it.

Don’t delegate

It’s important that the manager who will be supervising the new hire participate in the reference checks, says Sandra Lavoy, an Ottawa-based regional vice-president at recruitment agency Robert Half.

Delegating to others in the organization can lead to great candidates being overlooked, she says, because a direct manager will know best who is right for their team.

Lavoy adds that while the evaluation process might reveal much about the candidate’s technical skills or other proficiencies, it won’t reveal anything about them as a person, which is another reason to avoid checking references via a proxy. She tells of a conversation with a reference about an employee who she was considering for a sales role. Even though the candidate had no previous experience in sales, the conversation flowed into a discussion of the candidate’s other strengths that caught her attention.

“(The reference) told me that (the candidate) was good as an accountant, but she was passionate with the client,” she says. “When you have HR do it and it’s not an HR role, or if you have an admin do it just to be compliant, you can’t ask those questions.”  

Build a road map to success

Raven Telemetry, a local artificial intelligence firm, recently undertook an employee-driven exercise to define and align its core values. Workplace inclusivity and diversity were scored highly by staff, which CEO Martin Cloake says increased the company’s focus on hiring employees who not only reflect these values, but who can help them to evolve.

“As we add people to the team, we’re not necessarily looking to find people who align with the existing values, we’re looking for people who can augment them.”

Assent Compliance takes a similar approach.

“I tend to ask the questions that are in alignment with the cultural values of the company,” says Torkko. Like Cloake, Torkko says that employers should look for more than just a good match. “Culture fit is one thing, but we also think about culture add and culture evolution,” she says.

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