Avoid Blind Reference Checks
When faced with a difficult hiring decision, the least productive thing you can do is begin reaching out to your network in search of an "unvarnished" view of a candidate. These blind, or off-list, reference checks are not only useless, but actively dangerous.
The Danger of Off-List References
Let's get the dangerous part out of the way first. In fifteen years of working with companies, not a single blind reference check was ever suggested as a way to transform a "no hire" decision into a "hire" decision. That means that every blind reference check we do is actively looking for a reason not to hire someone. The repercussions of asking strangers for negative feedback are horrifying.
"He always left early to do stuff with his kids."
"Sally's bossy. It was always 'that time' for her."
"Jon was easier to work with once he started taking stuff for his anxiety."
Disgusted? Those are actual blind reference checks, sitting in three separate ATS systems, by three otherwise reputable companies. Protected categories extend to all your reference checks, but your premise for blind reference checks is going to naturally unearth vendettas, grudges, and other defamatory statements.
Or worse, your blind reference will go ruin your candidate's career. Greg, a former colleague, allowed me to share his story (names and companies changed):
I applied to WidgetSoft back in 2011 and got to the final stage of the interview. The hiring manager saw that I was connected on LinkedIn to Danny, a coworker from a few jobs ago. What the hiring manager didn't know was Danny and my boss were frat brothers. I'm sure Danny said something, because I was fired the next day. I "already had a foot out the door," according to my boss. Someone at CogTech heard what happened, interviewed me, and three weeks later, I was working for them instead.
What isn't in Greg's story is that he sued WidgetSoft for damages. The case was settled before trial. That's a tremendous amount of risk for what is useless information. You already knew the decision before you picked up the phone to message someone in your network. If you're looking off-list for a reference, it's automatically a "no hire" decision. It's that simple, no clandestine checks required.
Every time you get the urge, fix the problem you can control: your interview.
Fixing Your Interview
If at any point you or anyone in your company considers reaching out to their network for a blind reference check, stop the transaction immediately and write on the nearest writable surface. Your goal is to capture the raw thoughts and motivations behind wanting to check other references.
- "They seem to be dispassionate about the product"
- "I think they are a brilliant jerk"
- "I wasn't convinced they are a strong coder"
These may be gaps in your interview process. Now is the time to ask the team, "what should we ask to dig into this issue deeper next time?" With a few tweaks to an existing interview or a small adjustment to a process, you can begin addressing these gaps.
Don't be surprised if you encounter a lot of resistance the first time you ask everyone to slam on the brakes. If your company habitually checks off-list references, folks have likely become comfortable with their flawed process. Since blind reference checks aren't done to overturn a unanimous "no hire" decision, that leaves two routes to explore:
If the team was all "hire" decisions, then why do we need to ask more folks outside of the interview process? What is it we couldn't glean from our own process? Why don't we trust our interviewers?
If the team was split between "hire" and "no hire" decisions, then why wouldn't we respect our interviewers and default to "no hire"? Are we just looking for confirmation bias?
Over time, by improving your own process, you'll lose the need to do blind reference checks.
On-List References Still Have Value
All of this doesn't mean you ignore the references provided. While off-list references have significant dangers, on-list references can provide valuable insights into how to effectively onboard, manage, and grow your employee. Know what you are looking for in your references, and ask for references who can speak to the areas you want to explore. The following three individuals are a good place to begin.
- Someone who managed the candidate directly. This person will help you learn which relationships your new employee will need to prioritize building.
- Someone who was peer to the candidate. This will help you or their direct manager ensure the new employee is in an environment that is set up for success.
- (For Managers) Someone who the candidate managed. This will help you understand both the new employee's management style and the the support they'll need to be successful.
When it comes to questions, Sean Falconer has done tremendous work with his article "Best Questions to Ask References". Not only is it a comprehensive list of questions, but includes the all-important "why" you'd want to ask these questions in the first place.
If you find yourself needing more references than were provided, the best thing you can do is be honest with the candidate. Your honesty will yield better references, and the candidate has the opportunity to provide individuals who can actually speak to the areas you want to explore.