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Referencing Candidates - A Critical Yet Often Forgotten Art

October, 2023
Adam Richardson

Although recruitment processes are supposed to sort the wheat from the chaff, it will always be the case that some interviewees come across exceptionally well, while others struggle to give a fair account of themselves. Referencing is one of the most effective ways of getting a picture of a prospective employee’s likely cultural fit and to affirm (or otherwise) the impression of their skills and experience that comes from their CV and interviews. 

However, referencing has fallen out of favour. To do it well not only requires time but also skill and experience. There is no doubt that, even with assurances of confidentiality, it is more difficult to persuade people to talk candidly about current and past colleagues than it was 20 years ago. It feels as though the spectre of litigation and social media shaming hangs over every conversation. 

It is also unpopular with applicants who can be very jumpy about the idea of someone calling colleagues and asking what they are like to work with, either because the reports may be unfavourable or because they are concerned that it will become general knowledge that they are considering a move. 

The flip side is that appointing the wrong candidate can be a damaging, time consuming and expensive mistake. Furthermore, many of the candidates who get edgy about colleagues discovering they are being considered for another role are not serious about moving roles in any case. 

If you approach referencing in the right way however the upsides outweigh the downsides. Here are some suggestions that may help:

  • Don’t rely on the references the candidate provides – candidates will naturally want to provide the strongest impression they can and so will cherry pick the names they give you. The better ones will then brief their references about what to say. Unsurprisingly these individuals are unlikely to offer up any meaningful insights into the candidate’s flaws. Instead identify your own targets.
  • Use your network and LinkedIn to identify potential references – the procurement and supply chain aspect of the construction industry is fairly niche and it is generally possible to quickly identify the colleagues of applicants who will know what that individual is like to work for, alongside and above. Getting them to answer any meaningful questions can be more challenging but there are techniques that can help (see below).
  • Manage prospective candidates  as mentioned above, the idea of a prospective employer (or a recruiter) calling a candidate’s contacts can make them (understandably) nervous about engaging with a process. Where possible I like to be upfront with candidates and explain that we often vet candidates by discreetly calling colleagues. I will sometimes offer to tell the candidate in advance who I intend to call and if they have any strong objections to names on the list they can explain what the issue is. Where appropriate I will also explain to the candidate that I will do my best to mask the true purpose of my call. For example, I might tell the reference that I am building a shortlist of candidates to approach for a role and would like their insights into two or three individuals that they’ve worked with. Alternatively, I will sound the reference out about their suitability for the role and then ask whether any of their (former) colleagues might be suitable. It doesn’t always work and sometimes a more direct approach is needed but it is worth trying.
  • Plan your referencing calls  you will often only get one shot with each reference so make sure you have planned the call. If you are simply confirming where the candidate worked, when and what they were responsible for then this is a checkbox exercise that will often be referred to HR. However, with a carefully prepared call script, the reference can be used to better understand the candidate’s likely cultural fit, assess their management style, get a third party insight into their achievements etc. Try to phrase questions and conversations so that early in the call the reference gets into the habit of saying ‘yes’ and answering questions, so start with softball questions such as confirming the candidates job title. If the reference won’t talk on the record ask whether, if you were recruiting for them they would want you to qualify candidates in depth and then ask them to speak off the record.

One bad hire can quickly become very disruptive to a team reducing morale, creativity, communication and productivity as well as sowing the seeds of mistrust and division. That extra bit of research can make all the difference.

About the author:

Adam Richardson - Managing Director

Adam has over 20 years’ experience recruiting procurement and commercial professionals across the construction sector.

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