October 17, 2014

How to Get Reliable Information from Reference Checks

DevilEmployment references have the lowest predictive validity of all the major forms of candidate assessment — e.g., structured interviews, testing, work samples — according to studies from Beardwell at al. in 2004 and CIPD in 2007. Yet, at the time of the studies, over half of employers relied on references. This percentage is likely to have increased since then, because social media has made background checking much easier. Studies suggest that around 90 percent of employers conduct social media background checks today.

With so many employers using such an unreliable form of assessment, what can employers do to derive more real and actionable info from reference checks?

Well, one of the easiest ways to get real information from references is to avoid using social media for casual background screening. Surveys show that candidates can score badly in the eyes of employers if they are seen posting content about alcohol or other consumed substances on social media, but the inference that such employees may be “bad” is incorrect: a survey by Dr. Lori Foster Thompson, professor of psychology at North Carolina State, found that there is no significant correlation between conscientiousness and alcohol- or drug-related posts. So, we learn that casual usage of social media in background checks can deliver erroneous results.

That being said, the study did find one social media indicator that correlated closely to positive traits. The study shows that people who rated high on agreeableness and conscientiousness were also very unlikely to bad mouth or insult other people on Facebook. Similarly, a separate study by Northern Illinois University’s College of Business demonstrate that personality profiling via Facebook could be more reliable than personality tests in predicting the future success of candidates.

The lesson here is that some real information can be derived from a diligent social media background check, but a casual interpretation of a social media profile will likely lead to some erroneous inferences about a person’s background. If you are going to conduct social media background screenings, exercise diligence. Try and stick to the more reliable indicators of personality and avoid the erroneous ones, and you will get more reliable info from social media background checks

Of course, many people check references the old fashioned way: by asking former employers. Just like social media checks, direct reference checks can also be unreliable. Part of the reason that background checks are unreliable is that the references may not be neutral or unbiased witnesses. They may give too positive a review because they like the applicant or fear reprisals, or they make be very negative because they don’t like the applicant. It may be that the reference check is inaccurate because the employee’s performance was simply not recorded, or else recorded incorrectly. It may be that the person providing the reference doesn’t have a good appreciation of the candidate’s performance and is just paying lip service. Bearing all these factors in mind, there are several steps you can take to increase the reliability of your reference checks:

  1. Have the candidate sign a waiver which can be shown to the reference so they can see they are protected (within reason) from any potential liabilities for disclosing information. This may make them feel more comfortable about speaking freely.
  2. Choose the references yourself. Clearly, the candidate is going to filter their references and select references who will say good things about them, potentially keeping you from some truths. Establish who their main bosses, internal clients, and suppliers were during interview, and then request to speak to these specific references.
  3. Speak to as many references as you can (three or four), as this will help you spot more consistent behavioral patterns.
  4. Ask questions based around the examples of behavior that the candidate gave you during interview. Did they say that they took charge of a project? If so, then ask or enquire into their role in the project, which will help you corroborate or reinforce what you have found in the interview.

The important thing is not to elevate the importance of background checks, because references have been shown to have very low levels of reliability as performance assessment tools. They should be used as a secondary or even tertiary selection method to corroborate or cast doubt on the candidate’s performance-based interview answers. Used this way — and following the safeguards mentioned above — you will be able to get real and actionable information from reference checks.

Read more in Background Checks

Kazim Ladimeji is a Chartered Member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, and has been a practicing HR professional for 14 years. Kazim is the Director of The Career Cafe: a resource for start-ups, small business and job seekers.