July 7, 2014

Automated Reference Checks: You should be very worried

Filed under: Changing jobs, Getting in the door, Interviewing, Job Search, Q&A

In the July 8, 2014 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader thinks his references ruined his chances at a job offer:

Help! I received a verbal offer of employment, but before the written offer they needed to verify my references through an online survey program. After two weeks, I’ve heard nothing from the employer and they’re not returning e-mails. Is it safe to say that the very people I trusted to provide good references (one that even promoted me) totally sandbagged me, or that they perhaps provided mediocre references? Do I have any legal recourse to obtain a copy of the reference report that the potential employer received? It’s absolutely devastating that some of my co-workers would do this.

Nick’s Reply

Whoa, there! I would not assume your references sandbagged you. There are other issues to consider first.

  • referencesFind out whether the online reference service has even contacted your references. Two weeks might seem like a long time, but employers routinely take months to process job applicants.
  • The problem might be no references at all. If I were one of your references, I’d never fill out such an online form. I’d have no idea who has access to it or how it will be used. I’d also find it offensive. If an employer wants me to invest my time to give you a reference, I expect the hiring manager to invest the time to actually talk to me. If your references declined to participate in an impersonal “check” like this, would you even know? Take care of your references.
  • You have no idea what questions the “survey” asked or whether the questions are valid. This puts you at risk the minute you grant permission for such checks.
  • You have no idea whether the personnel jockeys who “read” the results of these reference checks are qualified to interpret them. If the software merely assigns a score to your references, then the employer may not even have made a judgment. You may have been rejected by software.
  • If your reference used terms the personnel jockeys don’t understand correctly, is there a way built into the system so the reference can clarify what they mean?

I think using a “survey program” to check references is unprofessional, stupid and insulting. It’s like the classic children’s game known as “telephone.” By the time a reference’s opinion is processed through software and other intermediaries, who knows what it means? I’d never use such services myself, and I’d never consent to letting software check my references.

Reference-checking services

This raises another question: Is it legitimate for an employer to use a third-party reference-checking service, even if it’s a human being that calls your references? I think not. I don’t even accept a personnel office checking references. The hiring manager should do it. Nuances can make all the difference. The answer to a question might trigger certain other questions that only the hiring manager would know to ask. A reference check is not a survey; it’s a discussion. It’s an exploration.

Remember: References are judgments, and so is their interpretation. When an employer inserts third parties and middlemen in a judgment process, they’re more likely to make mistakes. Far too much of the hiring process is outsourced; so much, I think, that the decision making is effectively removed from the hiring manager. (See We don’t need no stinking references.)

Headhunters checking references

What about headhunters? I check references on my candidates, and I share the results with my clients. Should my clients, the references and the candidates trust my judgment? Yes — because next to the hiring manager and the hire, I have the biggest vested interest in the hiring decision. No personnel manager, no third-party service and no “online survey” will earn more money when a hire is made than I will. My living hinges on doing it well. I’d better be good at it, and I’d better be a good interpreter of what my client wants and needs.

But, even then, I will have the hiring manager talk directly with references before a hiring decision is made. Why? For the same reason I already shared: I have a lot riding on a prudent hiring decision. I don’t want to have to refund my fee. I want the placement to stick, and I want everyone involved to be happy. I want the manager using his or her judgment to make the final choice.

What should you do now?

  • I’d contact each of the references you provided to the employer. Don’t ask them what they said to the program. Ask them if they even received a reference request, and whether they completed it.
  • In the future, I would explain to employers that your references are busy people who would be happy to talk about you — but you’d never dream of asking them to fill out forms online. “Just as you wanted to talk with me in person, I’d like you to talk with my references in person. I’m sorry, but I can’t ask them to complete a form online.” Why risk irritating a reference when the irritation might be reflected in their comments about you?

My answers to your other questions:

  • It’s possible that it’s just taking the company a long time to process your offer and that everything’s fine. But to let you hang out there, waiting like this, is unprofessional in any case.
  • I doubt the reference company will give you the reports. It’s worse if they do — that means the references are not confidential. Check the agreement you signed (or clicked on!) when you granted permission for reference checks. My guess is you relinquished any rights to see the results. My bigger concern is, what other rights did you grant to the reference company? Are they free to give your reference reports to other subscribers without asking you? (That is, you might interview at another company that has access to your references without even asking you. Surprise!)
  • As for your co-workers delivering bad references: That would be my last concern. If you’re not sure what someone will say about you, then why are you using them as references? Finally, did you give your references a heads-up that they were going to be polled? That’s crucial — they need to be prepared for the request so they can think about how they’re going to respond. (If you need to deal with an undeserved nasty reference, see Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer’s Full Attention.)

The bottom line is, impersonal, automated reference checking can cost you a job. What you think are references may be little more than checked-off responses to canned questions processed by software that gets your references angry.

I’d start by confirming the references were checked. Then I’d ask your references what they thought of this “online reference checking” system. You might get an earful. Finally, take a strong position on how employers check your references.

If you want maximum leverage with an employer, “Don’t provide references — Launch them!” That’s a section of Fearless Job Hunting, Book 3: Get In The Door (way ahead of your competition) that explains how to use preemptive references.

A note to employers: Why do you bother interviewing job candidates in person, and then rely on impersonal, indirect reference checks conducted by software? If you’re going to talk to the candidate, then talk to the references, too! Or why not just let the software make the hiring decision? (I take that back. I get the feeling that, lots of the time, software does make the decision.)

Are your references real or software? Do you let employers “poll” your references rather than talk to them? What’s the best way to handle your references?

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54 Comments on “Automated Reference Checks: You should be very worried”
By Nick Corcodilos
April 30, 2015 at 10:30 am

@Max: There is no way to tell. Just do your best at this point. Don’t worry about competition because you can’t control that. You can control only what you do.

By Stevie Wonders
September 14, 2015 at 9:30 pm

I’m starting to encounter more applicant tracking websites that make reference info mandatory, filling with bogus data (like “upon request”, fake phone number). Looks like this is yet another area that may require legislation to restrict so that innocent parties aren’t hurt. And a 10 page online questionnaire before an interview, never mind an offer? That is beyond absurd.

By Nick Corcodilos
September 14, 2015 at 9:44 pm

@Stevie Wonders: I’m wondering myself. How far must this all go before people just stop using automated application systems out of disgust? Imagine the more productive ways they’ll start cultivating real job opportunities.

By Ask The Headhunter® | Nick Corcodilos – References: How employers bungle a competitive edge
December 7, 2015 at 10:24 pm

[…] so trivial that companies routinely outsource reference checks rather than do it themselves. (See Automated Reference Checks: You should be very worried.) They’re going to judge you based on a routine set of questions that someone else asks a […]

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