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Don’t Risk It: Always Check References

You’ve just finished a great video interview with a top candidate and you feel good about what this individual will bring to your company. You really want to check their references, but you also know top talent like your candidate rarely stays on the market for very long. Would it be so terrible if you skipped the reference checking step just this once?

Most simple answer – yes it would be. I’m sure Yahoo felt the same way when when scooped up former CEO Scott Thompson to head the company. Then four months later Thompson was fired in disgrace when it turned out he had lied on his resume about his college credentials. This is an embarrassment Yahoo could have avoided with a more thorough background check. Yahoo isn’t alone though. Resume fibbers are constantly being caught in all aspects of life. Back in 2010 student Adam Wheeler was convicted of defrauding Harvard out of nearly $40,000 after faking his transcripts to receive grants and prizes. Then there was Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal, whose impressive military records didn’t match up to reality. These are all cautionary tales for recruiters and hiring managers about the importance of checking references. In each case it wasn’t just the liars who ended up looking bad; it was also the institution which didn’t catch the fib in time.

This is why it’s essential to always check references, especially for candidates who might seem too good to be true. Research from SHRM shows that 96 percent of all human resource professionals actually check references before hiring. However less than 25 percent of those checks provide adequate information beyond verifying employment history.

While we’ve established why it’s imperative to always check references, how do you make sure you’re getting all the information you need?

Here are some helpful tips to get the most information about your candidate so you can determine if they’ll be your next superstar employee or a public relations nightmare:

Have Applicants Sign a Release
Many employers won’t feel comfortable giving you much information about former employees for fear of a lawsuit. If you have applicants sign a release allowing you to ask a variety of questions without legal fear, you’ll get more relevant information. Companies want to know they won’t be sued for divulging more information than dates of employment and job title. If they do, you’ll get a much better idea of what the candidate was really like at their last place of employment.

Verify School Records
Take the lesson from Yahoo and make sure to always verify the educational achievements candidates list on their resume. The further a candidate is along their career path, the easier it becomes to fib when it comes to education. While employers will definitely check out the educational history of an entry level candidate, they might be more likely to give it a pass when it’s a senior management position. Candidates know this, and thus educational backgrounds are more likely to be massaged to look impressive than even career history. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking educational verification isn’t important.

Listen to What’s Said (and Unsaid)
When speaking to former employers, make sure you pay razor-sharp attention to what is said and unsaid about a candidate. For instance, if the employer doesn’t have much at all to say about your star candidate, you need to ask yourself why. If this candidate is so great on paper, why doesn’t their former workplace have more glowing things to say? It’s possible the employer is trying to tell you something important about your candidate while remaining diplomatic. Learn to read between the lines.

What do you find most useful when checking references? Have you ever had a bad experience because you didn’t check? Share in the comments!

IMAGE: Courtesy of ConstructionConnection.

Written by

Heather R. Huhman is the Career & Recruiting Advisor for Spark Hire. She writers career and recruiting advice for numerous outlets, and is the author of Lies, Damned Lies & Internships: The Truth About Getting from Classroom to Cubicle (2011), and #ENTRYLEVELtweet: Taking Your Career from Classroom to Cubicle (2010). Connect with Heather and Spark Hire on Facebook and Twitter.

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