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Christopher Thompson's Closing the Deal: Don't waste time checking references

August 16. 2014 11:22PM

WHEN YOU'RE responsible for managing people, there is a long list of challenges that you face on a daily basis. If I was asked to pick the biggest challenge I continually face, I wouldn't hesitate long before I identified hiring as my biggest challenge.

Hiring the right people is not easy. I've lost track of how many people I've interviewed and hired over the course of my career, but I know it's way into the hundreds. And still, it's one of the things I have yet to truly master. And when I say I've made some major hiring mistakes, I know I'm not alone.

If you want to learn about hiring and improve your skills, there is a ton of information out there to help you. There is an endless supply of self-proclaimed hiring experts and people who claim to have figured it all out. But even for the best interviewers, there is and always will be a large margin of error. Even the best hiring managers will make catastrophic hiring mistakes.

There are a lot of different things you can do to make sure the person you are considering hiring is truly the best fit for the job. Of course the interview process you follow is a big piece of that and tools like assessments can also help validate the skillsets the candidate claims to have. And then of course, there are the old fashioned reference checks.

It's pretty standard for companies to ask for references when you are interviewing for a job. It's part of every formal job application and most hiring managers want to speak to people the candidate has worked with in the past.

But there is one problem. The person being interviewed is the one that provides the references. Do you honestly think someone interviewing for a job is going to list someone as a reference that they think will say something negative about them? Of course not.

The majority of the time, they list someone as a reference who is a friend or someone they have a strong relationship with. Think about it. Who did you put down as reference for the last job you applied for?

So then why waste your time calling people who most likely have a personal relationship with the candidate and are prepared and waiting for your call? It really doesn't make any sense.

Instead of wasting your time calling people who are almost guaranteed to say nothing but positive things about the person you are interviewing, here are a few suggestions on how to get the truth and find out the real background about the person you are considering hiring.

Track down former managers

During your initial interview with the candidate, review their work history. Learn about their previous roles and dig into the details of what they did. And then, ask the most valuable question you can ask in an interview when you are reviewing employment history. "Who did you report to?"

Now you have their former boss's name. And then you pick up the phone and call them to get the real story. Trust me when I say, this is the most valuable thing you can do in the hiring process.

Use LinkedIn to identify peers

LinkedIn is a great tool to use when you're trying to find people that worked with someone.

It's easy to identify similar titles as well as the time frames they likely worked together. Just like you did with their former managers, pick up the phone and reach out to people who used to work with the person you are interviewing.

Managers can be a bit biased, depending on the situation, but feedback from their peers is usually very candid and telling.

Keep an open mind

Ignoring references provided by someone you are interviewing and doing your own digging, can often times lead to feedback you may not have expected based on the story you were told.

However, keep in mind, everyone has an opinion. Negative feedback from a random person shouldn't disqualify someone from a job, but it's great information to use in future discussions you have with the person you are considering hiring.

Christopher Thompson ( writes Closing the Deal weekly for the Sunday News. Chris is the VP of Sales and Services for Leadership Solutions at Skillsoft, a Nashua-based provider of learning solutions. Visit Skillsoft on the web at

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