When you fail to fully examine a reference, you increase your chances of a costly mis-hire

It’s just a formality, goes the thinking, and it is that thinking that causes employers major problems.

By Lorcan Nyhan Head of Careers, Communications Clinic

THE COVER LETTER gets perused. The CV gets examined. If the job applicant survives those two tests, the big guns come into play: the interview or sometimes several interviews.

Once all of those tests are passed, the decision is pretty much made. The job applicant is going to be offered the job. Or perhaps is offered the job, assuming their references are all in order.

That’s the killer assumption, and employers make it because they’ve convinced themselves that the applicant is perfect for the post. So examining the references is no more than a mildly irritating ritual someone has to dance through.

In my experience, even a large company or state sponsored body which lines up its heavy hitters for a major panel interview to select someone for a senior post, will not line up any of those heavy hitters for the job of checking the references.

That may be handed over to “someone in HR”. That someone may not have been directly involved in the job interview, but, consciously or subconsciously, they know that top management is pretty much committed to one candidate and that top management neither expects nor wants them – the HR employee – to interrogate the references with such rigour as to cause the job offer to be withdrawn.

Major problems 

It’s just a formality, goes the thinking, and it is that thinking that has caused major problems, here and overseas.

Take the case of Charles Cullen, potentially America’s most prolific serial killer, whose murderous track record was explored in Charles Graeber’s bestselling The Good Nurse.

It is now believed that Cullen may have murdered as many as four hundred patients in his care. He worked in dozens of hospitals, exhibiting the same pattern of behaviour in each.

He always started as “the good nurse” who paid extra attention, worked the most unloved shifts, did the most difficult procedures with ease. A guy who was always willing to help out.

Within months, the next element in Cullen’s pattern came into play: higher rates of cardiac arrest and unexpected deaths from other causes during his shifts. This pattern wasn’t as obvious as it might have been, for the simple reason that Cullen quite often interfered with, say, intravenous bags laid out for later hanging beside seriously ill patients, and then went home.

While he liked to be present when patients “coded” in order to make heroic efforts to save them, he was just as happy to have patients code at random when he wasn’t present. Death was his objective.

Sooner or later, in every hospital, someone copped on that Charles Cullen was a peculiar bit of work. His management of the drugs cart was bizarre. That, alone, was enough for hospitals and nursing homes to stop rostering him, to start warning him and to cause him to look elsewhere for work.

When he applied at a new hospital, they would look at his CV, and sometimes at his (self-created) references, and, in their dire need for qualified staff, would frequently leave it at that. Once hired, the Charles Cullen pattern re-established itself and patients began to die.

The shocking thing about the examination of his CV and references was this. Cullen was careless. He didn’t bother to check his own dates. Even the most cursory examination of the documentation he provided should have turned on red lights and sirens. But it didn’t happen.

Inattention to references

The Charles Cullen example is unique. But, in recent years I have seen enough employment problems arising from inattention to references to want to warn potential employers against being cursory in how they treat references.

Too often, people ringing the previous employer to check on a potential new hire behave as if it’s simply a confirmation issue: “Just checking that Joey Ascherson worked for you as.. .?”

You need to be careful with this approach, it may suit the former employer down to the ground. They may be delighted to get rid of him and want the caller off the phone as soon as possible. If they’re annoyed with him for leaving, they’re unlikely to want to do PR for his virtues to the person head hunting him.

If you’re telephoning to check a reference, the first thing you need to do is ask open questions. The second is to listen.

“Talk to me about Joe Bloggs during his time working for you.”

An open question will move the referee away from simple confirmation. When they finish their first comment, don’t start speaking. Do a puzzled “Mmmm?” Or even stay silent. That’s when people begin to do “truth leakage.” Start writing down the key words. Then put the contrast question.

“You say he was ‘diligent.’ But how creative was he?”

If the referee knew and valued Joe, they’ll want to correct any misapprehension about him. Ask for specific examples.

Then ask how quickly the former employee would hire Joey again. Or why they think he’s leaving them at this point. This kind of question pushes the referee beyond generality to personal commitment.

Two other points.

The first is to be observant about the person giving the reference. If it’s not their present boss, who is it? Is it someone who worked with them a long while back who’s a friend, rather than someone to whom they report?

The second is to take a skeptical but not cynical tone when taking the referee through the reference. Even if you believe Joe is the best thing to happen to your firm and even if you’re keen to employ him, that’s not the tone to adopt with the referee.

This, remember, is your last line of defence before making a possibly disastrous error. Don’t let liking someone bend your analytical thinking out of shape.

Lorcan Nyhan is a senior consultant and the head of careers at The Communications Clinic.

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