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How to Check Employee References

Checking references is a bit of a lost art…

Checking references has become so maligned that many hiring managers today dismiss it as a waste of time but nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is if you’re willing to put in the work, checking references can be the difference between hiring your next superstar or hiring your next malcontent.

Listen, I’ll be the first to admit… checking references can be a bit of a PITA. I don’t like picking up the phone and getting rejected either. I don’t like being told so-an-so can’t talk to me because HR won’t let him.

Believe me, I get it.

Unfortunately there’s also nothing I despise more than hiring the wrong person for the job and having to deal with the consequences after. In fact, I’m positive most hiring managers would agree that the costs of a bad hire more than warrants spending some extra time to ensure the candidate you plan on hiring is in fact the right person for the job.

When checking references you should have two goals in the back of your mind throughout the process:

  1. Ensure the applicant is the right person for the job
  2. Verify the applicants experience, background and other critical skills

That’s it.

The biggest complaint I hear about checking references is that it’s a waste of time because it’s too difficult to get someone on the phone or that the feedback from references is so vague that it doesn’t help with the hiring decision one bit.

Check out this quote from this USNews.com article:

“Policies about not providing references are frequently broken. While some employers have a policy that they won’t give a reference beyond simply confirming your dates of employment, in reality this policy is broken all the time.”

If your goal is to hire the best person for the open position you have right now than checking references is a necessary evil. While some past employers may only share start and end dates of employment, what about the past managers who will divulge to you how a prospective employee performed at their previous job? Or what kind of work ethic they displayed on the job and what their attendance was like? It’s a fact that there are people out there willing to share this information. It’s up to you to go out and find them.

Beyond the important information you’ll glean from checking references, you’ll also want to verify that your prospective client did not lie on his or her resume or job application. Make sure to verify salary history, positions held and any degrees or licenses obtained.

More importantly though, you’ll want to verify/ confirm that your prospective hire can actually do what they claim to do. And that leads me into my first tip for checking references…

Be Prepared

Just for a minute put yourself in the other managers shoes. I don’t think any managers begin their day by penciling into their agenda or saying to themselves, “I’ve got to give out some great references today.” In short, giving out references is an intrusion and usually not a welcomed one so if you’re trying to check references you need to be prepared and ready to go at a moment’s notice so as to not waste anybody’s time and more importantly to not waste any opportunities.

In my post “How to Hire Better Employees,” I make the statement: “Know what you’re searching for.” In a nutshell, it means have a very good idea of what skills, attributes and talents your prospective hire will possess to have a good chance of succeeding with your company once hired. Chances are you don’t want to hire a sales person who’s never programmed or coded a day in his life to program your next critical piece of software right? Of course not, you’d probably want to hire the guy/gal who’s been coding up a storm for the past few years and can prove it. That may be exaggerating things a bit but check out this video below on defining job expectations for better hires if this isn’t sinking in yet.


I can go on for hours on how “knowing what you’re searching for” can lead to better hires. Suffice it to say that knowing which skills and attributes are necessary for success in a particular position can also make you a better reference checker.

How so? Let’s move on to tip #2 which is:

Ask Specific Questions to Get Specific Answers

If you aren’t satisfied with the replies you’ve been getting from references maybe you need to look at the questions you’re asking… Poor answers are usually the result of poor questions. Most importantly though don’t ask any “yes or no” questions if you don’t want to receive any “yes or no” answers.

Ask open ended questions and then get out of the way. Learn to become a good listener because listening intently is one of the keys to getting the most out of references. And most of all don’t be afraid of uncomfortable silences. The person on the other end will most likely feel the uncomfortable silence as well and may volunteer some information that they wouldn’t normally volunteer.

Of utmost importance when asking questions though is to ask specific questions that will help you make a hiring decision. In my opinion, that becomes a little easier if you know what quality or traits you’re looking for in a specific candidate. I think it’s a great idea to develop a list of customized job-specific questions for every different position in your organization keeping the two goals at the top of this post in mind.

Be a Good Listener

When checking references you’ll also have to listen for subtle signs and read between the lines because most managers aren’t going to come out and tell you that they’d never in a million years hire so-and-so again. Learn to listen to tone and the enthusiasm (or lack thereof) in someone’s voice to gauge their true feelings about a past employee. Is the other manager hesitant to answer a certain question? Is there a long pause before answering a question? Sometimes it’s not what a former manager says but what they don’t say that will tell you everything you need to know. And that leads me to my next tip.

Make sure the person you’re speaking to has worked with the applicant

Most hiring managers I speak with are pretty much in agreement that personal references are a complete waste of time. The same can be said if you’re trying to get a reference from someone who never directly worked with the applicant. It’s critical that you speak with someone who has directly worked with the applicant so you can get an accurate depiction of the applicant’s capabilities.

Speaking with co-workers or managers from different departments who didn’t directly supervise or work with your prospective employee is a great way to waste your time. It’s also a common tactic used by job seekers… that is submitting only references that will speak well of them.

Don’t be afraid to ask if there’s anyone else you can speak with. Sometimes you have to do a little detective work and sleuthing around before you find the right person to talk to. And the bottom line is you prefer to speak with someone who has directly worked with your prospective employee. All things being considered, speaking to a former manager of a prospective employee is probably best.

How to Get References to Open up

Try as you may it can sometimes be difficult to get references to open up about past employees. I think the best approach to take and to relay to the reference is that you want to make sure the applicant will be a good fit for your organization and also that your organization will be a good fit for the candidate. Nobody wants to be the reason someone didn’t get a job but most people do want to be helpful. It’s up to you to craft your questions in a manner that makes the reference feel like they are helping you and the candidate and not necessarily costing someone a job.

If you still can’t get any references to open up and you really like a particular candidate, you may want to put the ball back in the candidate’s court and let them know that you haven’t been able to communicate with any of the references provided and ask that they provide more. It could also be a red flag if you can’t find somebody to speak positively about the applicant’s past performance.

Use LinkedIn

Here’s a link to a great article from Forbes on how savvy employers are using LinkedIn to find better references: http://www.forbes.com/sites/85broads/2013/05/30/what-linkedin-users-ought-to-know-about-job-references/

The article is more of a warning to job seekers but it should give you some great ideas on how you can use LinkedIn to find others who might be able to help you assess a candidate’s capabilities. Basically you want to log into LinkedIn and see if you have any connections to the applicant. If you are not directly connected to the applicant you will not be able to see their profile but you will be able to see what connections you have in common. LinkedIn is a great resource that you can use to create your own list of references particularly if you’re looking for more candid responses.

I agree 100% that checking references can be a total waste of time. The caveat to that is that most organizations aren’t doing everything they can to get the most out of checking references. You can’t continue to do things the way you’ve always done them and expect to get different or better results. If you’re not happy with the results you’ve been getting from checking references, maybe it’s time to take a closer look at how you’re checking references.

For more tips on how to hire better employees, follow me on Twitter and please chime in with any tips you have on how to check references in the comments.

An iPad Stand That Fits In Your Pocket?

wingstandAs a fairly frequent road warrior, I’m constantly on the lookout for technology and accessories that make my life easier while traveling. Recently I had a speaking engagement that required me to have easy access to my iPad from the stage. A bulky case was out of the question. After digging around online, I discovered the WINGStand.

The WINGStand design is elegant, yet powerful. It consists of two clips that literally fit in your pocket! In less than 10 seconds you are able to position any iPad or smartphone at an ergonomic viewing angle. It’s perfect for those times when you need use your mobile device as an alarm clock, media display, control surface, or for video chatting.

If you are using an Apple wireless keyboard, it gets even better. The WINGStand will actually slide on to the keyboard, which creates an instant mobile workstation. You can easily send e-mails, take notes, or type anything else that you need to – all without craning your neck in some convoluted fashion.

Perhaps the best part – the price. At $14.95 for two clips, it won’t break the bank.

Here is a product video from the WINGStand web site:

The WINGStand is available in both white and black. For additional information and to order, visit: www.WingStand.com

Michael Spremulli is a corporate personality profiler and leading authority on pre-employment assessments. He’s also a self-admitted technology nerd. He regularly shares technology tips for small business owners and road warriors on his web site www.BetterHiresGuaranteed.com

How to Hire Better Employees

Hiring-Better-EmployeesFinding the best employees for your company shouldn’t be like placing your chips at the craps table in Vegas… With the right process and strategy, consistently hiring good employees is as achievable as any other goal. Check out these tips and reap the rewards of hiring better employees.

Begin from Within

More and more employers are asking their employees for referrals to fill their open positions and there are many advantages to doing so. Better quality candidates, better quality hires, hires that stay on longer and overall less time spent during the recruiting and hiring process. These are all benefits of hiring employee referrals.

However, it’s also important to recognize that there are also some disadvantages to employee referrals so it’s important to strike a balance. Most employers like to keep their number of hires from employee referrals below 50%

Know what you’re searching for

Do you know what key skills and attributes (factors) you’re looking for in your new hire? Do you know which skills will facilitate success for your new hire? It’s imperative that you know the answers to these questions if you want your next hire to have a high chance for success. If you don’t already have a job description for the position, now is a good time to write one up.

Don’t know what skills will improve a new hires chance for success? Talk to people in the same or a similar position right now and ask them what skills and attributes they feel allow them to do their job better. Do you conduct exit interviews? Make sure to ask predecessors their opinions on these questions as well.

Also talk to people within your organization that work closely with that position as well as customers outside your company and find out what they think are key skills and attributes to performing well in that position.

Once you feel you have a good idea for what skills you’re looking for, make sure to jot them down so you can continue to refine them until you have a clear picture of what you’re looking for.

Make sure the Applicant has the Goods

Now that you know what you’re looking for, the entire hiring process should revolve around making sure the person you’re thinking about hiring has the skills and attributes that will make it easier for him or her to do well once hired.

Obviously this will be much harder for some positions (management positions are notoriously hard to hire for) than for others but the key is that you have to come up with some kind of test or process to determine whether or not the employee you hire will be able to do the job you hired him or her for. You’d be amazed how often companies hire programmers without ever asking them to write code before they make them an offer. If you’re hiring a programmer, don’t you think it would be advantageous to have them write a few lines of code for you so you can access their skill level? Of course it would!

Too many organizations depend on interviews to determine whether or not applicants will be able to do the job they are being considered for and that is a recipe for failure. Since you already know which skills will facilitate success it only makes sense to develop some sort of test or process (set of interview questions) that will help you determine if applicants are capable of doing the job. This is usually referred to as a “job sample assessment” and it’s key to consistently making better hires.

Is the Applicant Motivated?

This is much more of a subjective question but just as important none-the-less. After you’ve determined that the applicant can do the job, you also need to determine if the applicant is motivated to do the job.

Why do they want to work with you or your company? This is where you need to find out as much as you can about their work ethic and attitude. Check out their resume and see if they have a history of being promoted. Or do they have a history of jumping from job to job?

Involve others for different perspectives

According to Inc.com, “To consistently hire great people, you need multiple perspectives.” Most interviewers, knowingly or not, are biased in some way shape or form and that affects their decision making. Often the reason we like someone is not based on rationale thought but rather some bias. It could be the interviewee’s appearance, their smile, the way they talk, how they carry themselves, you may have a friend in common or they may just remind you of someone you know. Any way you look at it, the reason you like the applicant has nothing to do with their ability to do the job.

To cut down on this bias, it’s a great idea to involve others in the interviewing process to obtain multiple perspectives. We don’t all share the same biases so through multiple sets of lenses, we have a better chance of seeing the applicants objectively.

It’s also not a bad idea to have applicants interview with co-workers that they’ll be in constant contact with to see how their personalities mesh. The bottom line is that multiple perspectives are better than one.

Background Check

The unfortunate truth is that people lie on their resumes and applications. Dishonest employees rarely make good employees and you definitely want to know about a criminal record or falsifications on a resume prior to making a job offer. Running a background check on prospective hires can help eliminate a lot of potential risk and headaches.

References? LinkedIn is your Friend

We all know that most, if not all applicants, will solely list references that will only speak highly of them so we’re obviously not getting a really good assessment of the candidate through the references they prvide. And that’s where LinkedIn, the professional networking site, comes in.

Log into LinkedIn and type in the applicants name and while you may not be able to see their profile, you may discover that you know someone, or have someone in your network, who knows the applicants which is typically listed in the sidebar. These types of references can be invaluable as they can provide some real insights. Hat tip to Keith Cline for that tip: http://rightrecruiter.net/keith-cline-recruiting-great-employees/

Pre-Employment Assessment Tests

Of course, I’m biased on this one but pre-employment assessment tests are a great way to find out more about potential candidates and ensure that the person you’re hiring has the right skills and characteristics to perform well on the job.

Pre-employment assessment tests can be used to help hiring manager’s better screen candidates and help them select the best candidate for the job. Ultimately, pre-employment tests can help companies reduce costs associated with turnover, improve employee retention and increase productivity and these are all metrics that any employer would like to see improved.

For more tips on hiring better employees, please follow us on our blog and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mikespremulli.

5 Answers To FAQs About Pre-Employment Testing.

How Safe Are Personality Tests?1. I have heard that testing is not legal. Is that true?

That is clearly not true. In fact, proper use of good assessments can provide the most effective documentation of objective and nondiscriminatory hiring practices. Most legal issues occur when those instruments are used inconsistently or improperly. It is important to consult with individuals who are knowledgeable in such applications. Too often companies have failed to gain the benefits of new assessment technology because of conservative but uninformed advice. In today’s competitive world, businesses can no longer afford not to explore every possible competitive advantage.

2. Won’t some people be offended by being asked to complete a test?

Certainly, but if some people are offended by a company’s sincere and professional efforts to ensure the success of their employees through effective job matching, it is a small price to pay for the overall benefits to all employees in the company. Think of this way… if an applicant refused to complete your resume, provide references, or answer interview questions, how would you proceed? An assessment is no different. If an applicant refuses to complete any part of the application process, it’s a good indication about how he might challenge his job responsibilities.

3. Aren’t there some people who just don’t do well on tests?

The inherent concept in the newest assessment technology is that all people are good at something, but no one is good at everything. That includes testing. In general, most people are anxious about taking any kind of assessment. This reaction has been conditioned by years in school, where passing or failing a test determined an individual’s class standing. Other tests such as driving tests or medical tests also contributed to this attitude. This is why it is important to explain the purpose of any test or assessment to all candidates before it is given. Right and wrong answers do not exist for many pre-employment assessment tests. They merely assess personality traits and personal values and then match them to job benchmarks. Outliers are not wrong but indicate that individual might need to adjust extra hard to be successful if hire. Skill tests, like Excel, typing, and math tests, on the other hand, do have right and wrong answers. People who don’t do well taking tests will certainly be affected by technical and administrative type tests. Many of the latest instruments provide preliminary messages that do exactly that and put the candidate at ease.

It is important to recognize that people with poor skills will seldom be enthusiastic when asked to take a test to measure those skills. People with performance problems will not be enthusiastic about completing an assessment to see how their abilities match a particular job. That is exactly why assessments are a vital part of today’s business world. Effective assessment instruments can identify the critical areas that people do not want to reveal, but that the business must know in order to make the best decision.

4. Our selection process is rather long now. How can we find time to fit in any tests?

The use of good assessments tends to collapse the time needed for selection decisions, not make it longer. Using a 10 -15 minute instrument such as PeopleClues Personality fit enables an employer to effectively screen out unsuitable candidates before spending substantial amounts of interviewing time with them. By focusing the selection efforts on those candidates that are most likely to succeed, employers can not only make faster decisions but more accurate decisions. By accelerating the hiring decision, employers also become more competitive at capturing talent in their job market.

5. We use a customized interview system that seems to be effective. Do we also need testing?

Customized interview systems, behavioral event-based interviewing, targeted interviewing, and competency-based interviewing are all sound methods for identifying potentially successful job candidates. Several systems use bio-data surveys to profile successful employees and then attempt to match interviewees to that profile. These programs can be an effective part of an employer’s hiring process. They, however, lack the objective measurement of current assessments. As more people become involved with the interviewing, the system becomes more vulnerable to the subjective differences of each individual interviewer. The process also requires a substantial amount of interviewing time to accomplish the screening that newer instruments such as PeopleClues can do in a matter of minutes. These instruments even provide behavioral interview questions based on the individual characteristics of the candidates. By screening candidates before in-depth interviews, the process is made much more efficient. PeopleClues and other pre-employment tests provide recommended interview questions in each employee assessment report, and then you can have the best of both worlds.

This article originally appeared in The Total View, a weekly
online newsletter that focuses on hiring, management and retention
strategies. The Total View is written and published by Ira S. Wolfe,
president of Success Performance Solutions
and is distributed with permission by The Chrysalis Corporation.
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