Checking References the Right Way

Many employers think checking a candidate’s work references is tedious and unnecessary, but they are wrong.  When done right, reference checking is both enlightening and essential.  The problem is that employers don’t use the proper interview techniques and they don’t use the occasion of talking to references to its fullest potential.

Here’s how to do it right:  During the interview process, as you discuss the candidate’s work history, zero in on a particular event–or events–when the candidate and his or her co-workers worked to resolve a problem or disagreed on an issue.  Discuss this matter at length with the candidate, asking specific questions about time, place, and the people involved.  Now, from among those involved people choose the supervisors or co-workers with whom you would like to speak to verify the candidate’s version of events.

When you ask the candidate for the names and contact information of those involved in the particular events, note the reaction.  An honest candidate will typically try to help you in every way possible to contact the reference and thereby confirm his or her account; while a dishonest candidate will erect obstacles and make excuses for not providing contact information.

When you contact your chosen reference, you have specific, work-related events to discuss and verify, and now you can engage that reference in a conversation that confirms or refutes the candidate’s version.  When the candidate has told the truth about the event, even if it involved a difficult workplace problem, you will find the reference is willing to discuss it.  But when the candidate has misrepresented or exaggerated the event, the reference will contradict the candidate’s version, and you will know your candidate’s commitment to honesty is questionable.

Quality, work-related references gathered during the interview can provide insight into the honesty of the candidate, and finding an honest candidate is the key to finding a good worker.  The secret to finding useful references is to select them yourself.  When talking to references, the secret is to have relevant workplace events to discuss with them.

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Does HR Run Your Company?

In business there’s a revered maxim: Never let your bookkeeper run your company.

At Patusan Trading Company I had an experience that drove this point home.  A furniture store owner in Virginia called to say that a customer decided to purchase a $12,000 oriental rug that she had seen during one of our rug show events.  But, she needed the rug before the Thanksgiving holiday, which was two days away.  So I drove 300 miles, delivered the rug, and picked up the check made out to the furniture store.  I promptly and proudly delivered the check just before the store closed at 6 pm.

Instead of expressing gratitude for a job well done, the bookkeeper glared at the check then groused at me, “What am I supposed to do with this?  Where’s your purchase order?”  The unexpected windfall for the store constituted unwanted work and an inconvenience for the bookkeeper.

Fortunately, the store’s owner walked in.  She thanked me for the check, for delivering the rug on short notice, for making her customer happy, and for providing a substantial profit on the sale.

Our maxim has a contemporary corollary: Never let your HR department run your company.  Bookkeepers and HR departments alike perform vital roles that keep organizations afloat.  They do their jobs so that managers can do theirs.  Bookkeepers and HR departments, however, lack the managerial mindset to prioritize profitability over process and consequently, they should be subordinated to management.

As a matter of big-picture importance, few things out-rank the hiring of top quality employees.  Yet HR departments routinely greet job-seekers with impenetrable bureaucratic mazes or with dismissive commands to apply on-line, a process that is fraught with pitfalls such as abstruse instructions, browser incompatibility, intermittent internet connections, and faulty algorithmic evaluation of job skills that are best judged by real living, breathing, thinking human beings.

Too often in this era of “apply online,” instead of a welcoming smile and a “Let’s take a look at your resume,” a job applicant is greeted with essentially, “Scram, punk, you’re bothering me.”  (Employers, if you don’t believe me, try applying anonymously for a job within your own company.  Most of you will be discouraged, if not shocked by the process.)

Hiring those workers who will determine the future success of your company is rightfully the job of management, and it should not be left to computers or to employees who are better versed in filing workers’ comp claims and tracking PLT than presiding over your company’s growth and profitability.  When it comes to hiring top-quality employees, the decisions should come from your company’s top planners.