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Traditional reference checks are garbage. They waste the time of everyone involved, and more importantly, they don't work. The process is broken, and it's obvious why.
Say you want to hire Jane. You ask Jane to provide six people for references. Some supervisors, some direct reports, some colleagues. She's obviously going to offer you only people she knows will say great things. You call them, and then you can check off the box of "reference checks" in your hiring process. If Jane can't find six people who say great things about her, then you have a whole different problem.
When I first started hiring people, long before I was running an executive search firm, it quickly became clear the traditional reference check model doesn't make any sense unless you can take the bias out of the process.
Employers can remove bias by actively seeking what I call a 360-degree view of the candidate. You want to see not only how the candidate acts at their best, but how they act on their worst, darkest day. You want to see whether others like working with the candidate, how they handle conflict, and how they deal with people they don't like. You're trying to validate what you've seen in the interview process, and you're looking for behaviours you haven't seen in the candidate yet.
Start early in the process
Hiring managers need to start in-depth reference checks as early in the interview process as possible, of course while protecting the candidate's current job. Your search partners, whether internal or external recruiters, should have a strong, trusted network of professionals they can discreetly rely upon to help you verify the information you've been collecting in the interview process.
Leverage people you know in common
Is your industry small? Capitalize on that. If you learn the candidate worked at a company where you also know someone, mention that. "Oh, you worked at Cogswell? I know Harpreet Singh there, do you know him?" Connect with the candidate on people you know in common whenever you can. It increases the level of openness during the interview process, because the candidate knows you can always choose to call Harpreet. Which, of course, you may choose to do.
Find your references during the interview process
Take note of who you'd like to use as your references as you're interviewing your candidate. Ask, "Who was your controller while you were at Initech?" or "what was your direct supervisor's name in that situation?" and then get permission from the candidate to contact those people when the time comes, and speak with them openly in broad themes. When you speak to the references, make sure you're asking the questions that provide you with the information that will help you: how did she behave in difficult situations, did he have conflict with people and how did he handle it, and would you rehire her?
Be ready for negative feedback
People don't do in-depth referencing is because it's a ton of work, but overwhelmingly the reason employers avoid it is because they don't want the bad news. They don't want the candidate to be taken out of the mix. They don't want the difficult process of hiring to start all over. This is short-term thinking. It's far more difficult to fix a bad hiring decision than it is to find another candidate while still in the hiring process.
However, doing this level of background checking is going to reveal some bad traits and some unappealing information, even about the candidate of choice. When this happens, I sometimes have to ask employers if they're looking for perfection, or if they're truly trying to find the candidate who is the best fit. I haven't met the perfect candidate in 16 years of doing this job, and I've met and placed some immensely impressive people.
Instead of expecting perfection, realistically review what you heard from the references you spoke with, and present that information back to the candidate before you get to the offer stage. You then have the opportunity to see how they manage feedback, providing you with an even more complete view.
In-depth referencing isn't about ticking a box on a hiring checklist. It's about finding out who the candidate really is, and what will really happen when you add that person to your team.
Marty Parker, CEO of Waterstone Human Capital (www.waterstonehc.com), is author of Culture Connection: How Developing a Winning Culture Will Give Your Organization a Competitive Advantage.