John Borrowman, CPC
Borrowman Baker LLC
After a hiatus, the HR Insider returns to let you have a private discussion about how things really work. In previous issues, we’ve explored questions about breaking through to Partner, how best to talk dollars at the time of an interview, and dealing with dissatisfaction in the workplace.
For this article, we reached out to an HR professional with a large CPA firm in the NY – Philly corridor which has a strong and growing BV and Lit Support practice. The confidentiality of our interviewee is important to the candor of the answers you will read. Send in your questions for our next HR Insider.
Q: Who are the references that candidates should be choosing that will make the most impact with an employer, like you?
A: Let me think for a second. To take a step back, I think fewer and fewer employers are relying on references than might have in the past due to the legal implications of giving anything other than factual information like date of hire, confirmation of title, etc. Most firms and companies refrain from giving any opinionated information at all such as eligibility for rehire, how the person was on the job, or their technical ability. That being said, the direct manager of the individual is the most common to give as a reference. But, a good interview process is much more valuable than what a reference would say.
Q: Do references have a shelf-life? Is there a chronological point beyond which a candidate should not reach?
A: Normally, one to three years is probably still an open window. Given the fact that a reference will normally say exactly what the candidate wants them to say, the information is not entirely valuable.
Q: You have to assume that the candidate has done some prepping with the reference. When does that go overboard, in your experience?
A: Anytime a candidate preps the reference beyond simply saying that `so-and-so` may call, it changes the information that that person might have given. Recently, I did a reference call on an employee with two different sources. And those two sources gave completely different opinionated responses and completely different factual responses because one of them had been prepped in advance.
Q: From an employee’s point of view, if you’re leaving under less than amicable circumstances, how might you ask for some sort of `exit statement` that might be used going forward?
A: The trend I’m seeing is that they’re asking for personal reference statements, versus professional ones. Most larger firms don’t allow employees to provide reference information about a former employee, ours included. If the employee chooses to give a reference statement, that becomes a `personal reference`. Instead, they might choose to give a statement based on their personal experiences with that employee rather than as a representative of their firm or company.
Q: What is your approach when a former employer is tight-lipped about a candidate you’re considering for a position? How should a candidate raise this when asking permission to use a reference’s name?
A: If an employee is prepping a reference, it’s important to give the reference the OK to release information and some sense of the time frame to release information on. For example, is it only the projects the candidate has worked on? Is it personal, or professional, traits that the reference can comment on?
Q: If a reference is going to be that tight-lipped, would you just as soon the candidate not gives it to you?
A: Yes. That type of reference just isn’t that helpful.
Q: If you did get a really bad reference, would you tell the candidate?
A: I’d be very hesitant to share the information that a reference has given on a candidate because of the legal ramifications. If you’re making a decision based on information that somebody gives you, that information can then become arguable to the candidate on why they either got the job or didn’t get the job.
Q: It sounds like you’re saying that, in your own process, you are putting less and less weight on references, themselves.
A: Correct. And more and more emphasis on behavioral interviewing.
Q: Do you think that references will go away, entirely?
A: I think background checks will continue to cover things like licensing, education, factual details. I know of very few firms who are doing reference checks any longer for either professional or non-professional positions. And I do know of some companies that have experienced lawsuits based on information that they used, in good faith, to make an employment decision. There’s nothing that replaces a strong interviewing process.