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Reference Checks Reborn

Reference Checks Reborn

Earlier today Nir Eyal published an awesome guest blog post on TechCrunch that I decided was worth making special note of here. ? In his post, Nir points out how ridiculous reference checks are – at least in their current form. ? And when you think about it, he’s right. ? As an employer, do you ever really expect to receive feedback that doesn’t paint the picture of the applicant as a model employee?

Of course, that’s not to say that reference checks can’t be helpful. ? But the way they are currently set up, with references having been hand picked by the applicant largely based upon the expectation of their good feedback, the potential employer has to put in extra time and effort on every reference call in order to peel back the layers of the onion to see how deep the references feelings are. ? Multiply that by 3 applicants and then multiply that for 10 positions during the month and pretty soon you’ve burned 25% of your time, assuming it only took one call to begin with.

He goes on to point out how the reference check is fundamentally flawed, “because the person giving the reference has no incentive to say anything but good things about the candidate. Telling the whole truth, warts and all, could expose the former boss to a? defamation lawsuit. And legal action aside, no one likes to speak poorly about an ex-colleague. It’s bad karma and just feels icky.”

As an alternative, Eyal relies upon human nature and one’s tendency to be lazy – an almost universal tendency in his opinion, which essentially means people will do the least amount of effort required to get the job done. ? Eyal recommends a different approach.

“Instead of asking a reference to call you and spend an awkward half-hour chitchatting about pretty much nothing, try a technique I’ve come to call it the “average-need-not-apply” method. Though I’m not sure who invented it, the approach was taught to me by? Irv Grousbeck? at Stanford.”

Start with an Email…

First, send the email below to people who have worked with the candidate. This can include the references he or she provided, but it’s a good idea to find other people who’ve worked with the candidate as well. LinkedIn makes finding former co-workers a snap and the more people you send it to, the better it will work.

Dear (past colleague),

I am considering hiring (candidate) for the role of (job function). If you’re like me, the last thing you have time for is a reference call. Therefore, unless you found (candidate’s) work to be EXCEPTIONAL, please just disregard this email.

However, if you found (candidate) to be an exceptional employee, in the top 10% of the people you’ve worked with, I would certainly appreciate hearing from you.

Again, if you found (candidate’s) work to be less than exceptional, go ahead and disregard this message and have a great day.

By the way, as a smart professional, you should subscribe to this wonderful blogger named Nir at He’s swell!



Wait for the response…

After you send this email, one of the following three things will happen:
Scenario 1 – It’s most likely that you will hear nothing back from the reference.

Congratulations! You saved yourself from hiring a B-player, or worse. You also saved yourself and the reference from having to conduct an uncomfortable, time-wasting phone call.

Scenario 2 – You receive an email back from the reference informing you that the candidate was in fact exceptional and they’d be happy to tell you more.

Congratulations! Looks like you found a star, now it’s time to have a chat to confirm the candidate is as great as you think they are and learn more about your soon-to-be employee.

Scenario 3 – You receive a call within 5 minutes of sending your email asking if the candidate is on the market for a new job, and if so, can you have the candidate call the reference back ASAP.
Congratulations! You’ve definitely found a winner. Don’t let the candidate return the call and make an offer immediately before someone else does. This scenario has actually happened to me a few times. It’s the best predictor of the quality of candidate I’ve ever seen. We immediately made offers to those candidates and without fail they turned out to be our best hires.

Based on Behavioral Science

Eyal goes on to point out that this isn’t just some? wacky? theory, but rather one grounded strongly in Behavioral Science. ? Unlike the traditional reference check method, which elicits an overly positive response in order to preserve social harmony, the “average-need-not-apply” method uses the opposite bias. By giving the reference an easy default — in this case doing nothing — this technique gauges just how great the reference thinks the candidate is. ? Those who have a strong positive opinion of a candidate take the time to write back. By using this method, an employer can collect more data points on the potential hire with just a few emails instead of scheduling phone calls.

You can read the entire article on TechCrunch HERE

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